Fri Jan 29 15:09:51 EST 2016

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently.

  • Google AI algorithm masters ancient game of Go

    Deep-learning software defeats human professional for the first time.

    To interpret Go boards and to learn the best possible moves, the AlphaGo program applied deep learning in neural networks -- brain-inspired programs in which connections between layers of simulated neurons are strengthened through examples and experience. It first studied 30 million positions from expert games, gleaning abstract information on the state of play from board data, much as other programmes categorize images from pixels. Then it played against itself across 50 computers, improving with each iteration, a technique known as reinforcement learning.

    But also see Go, Marvin Minsky, and the Chasm that AI Hasn't Yet Crossed.

  • Italian papers on genetically modified crops under investigation

    Work that describes harm from crops was cited in Italian Senate hearing.

    Papers that describe harmful effects to animals fed genetically modified (GM) crops are under scrutiny for alleged data manipulation. The leaked findings of an ongoing investigation at the University of Naples in Italy suggest that images in the papers may have been intentionally altered. The leader of the lab that carried out the work there says that there is no substance to this claim.

    The papers' findings run counter to those of numerous safety tests carried out by food and drug agencies around the world, which indicate that there are no dangers associated with eating GM food. But the work has been widely cited on anti-GM websites -- and results of the experiments that the papers describe were referenced in an Italian Senate hearing last July on whether the country should allow cultivation of safety-approved GM crops.

  • Trump Supporters Appear To Be Misinformed, Not Uninformed


    Political science research has shown that the behavior of misinformed citizens is different from those who are uninformed, and this difference may explain Trump's unusual staying power.
    Uninformed citizens don't have any information at all, while those who are misinformed have information that conflicts with the best evidence and expert opinion. As Kuklinski and his colleagues established, in the U.S., the most misinformed citizens tend to be the most confident in their views and are also the strongest partisans.

  • The Republican myth of Ronald Reagan and the Iran hostages, debunked

    The problem with this story: Iran released the embassy hostages because of Carter's negotiations, not in spite of them

    The boring and emotionally unsatisfying truth is that the Carter administration secured the Americans' release through protracted negotiations -- and by releasing millions of dollars to the Iranian government.

  • Opinion: Squirrels are bigger threat than hackers to US power grid

    While fresh reports of digital assaults on critical infrastructure facilities have stirred the cyberwar saber rattlers, it's worth remembering that squirrels cause far more destruction to the grid than rogue nation hackers.

    Yes, squirrels and other animals cause hundreds of power outages every year and yet the only confirmed infrastructure cyberattack that has resulted in physical damage that is publicly known is Stuxnet.

  • Too good to be true: when overwhelming evidence fails to convince

    Imagine that as a court case drags on, witness after witness is called. Let us suppose thirteen witnesses have testified to having seen the defendant commit the crime. Witnesses may be notoriously unreliable, but the sheer magnitude of the testimony is apparently overwhelming. Anyone can make a misidentification but intuition tells us that, with each additional witness in agreement, the chance of them all being incorrect will approach zero. Thus one might naively believe that the weight of as many as thirteen unanimous confirmations leaves us beyond reasonable doubt.

    However, this is not necessarily the case and more confirmations can surprisingly disimprove our confidence that the defendant has been correctly identified as the perpetrator. This type of possibility was recognised intuitively in ancient times. Under ancient Jewish law, one could not be unanimously convicted of a capital crime -- it was held that the absence of even one dissenting opinion among the judges indicated that there must remain some form of undiscovered exculpatory evidence.
    We have analysed the behaviour of systems that are subject to systematic failure, and demonstrated that with relatively low failure rates, large sample sizes are not required in order that unanimous results start to become indicative of systematic failure. We have investigated the effect of this phenomenon upon identity parades, and shown that even with only a 1% rate of failure, confidence begins to decrease after only three unanimous identifications failing to reach even 95%.

  • Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate

    Our first ideas, after all, are usually our most conventional. My senior thesis in college ended up replicating a bunch of existing ideas instead of introducing new ones. When you procrastinate, you're more likely to let your mind wander. That gives you a better chance of stumbling onto the unusual and spotting unexpected patterns. Nearly a century ago, the psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik found that people had a better memory for incomplete tasks than for complete ones. When we finish a project, we file it away. But when it's in limbo, it stays active in our minds.

  • The Math Gender Gap: The Role of Culture

    This paper explores the role of cultural attitudes towards women in determining math educational gender gaps using the epidemiological approach.
    The transmission of culture is higher among those in schools with a higher proportion of immigrants or in co-educational schools. Our results suggest that policies aimed at changing beliefs can prove effective in reducing the gender gap in mathematics.

Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Thu Jan 21 13:38:39 EST 2016

Edge Question 2016

Every year invites top thinkers of the world to answer a question. For 2016 it is What Do You Consider The Most Interesting Recent [Scientific] News? What Makes It ImportanT? Below are what most interests me from the 197 responses. Although this is long, it is only a small part of the original and I suggest reading it all.

  • Steven Pinker: Human Progress Quantified

    Fortunately, as the bugs in human cognition have become common knowledge, the workaround--objective data--has become more prevalent, and in many spheres of life, observers are replacing gut feelings with quantitative analysis. Sports have been revolutionized by Moneyball, policy by Nudge, punditry by, forecasting by tournaments and prediction markets, philanthropy by effective altruism, the healing arts by evidence-based medicine.
    Among the other upward swoops are these. People are living longer and healthier lives, not just in the developed world but globally. A dozen infectious and parasitic diseases are extinct or moribund. Vastly more children are going to school and learning to read. Extreme poverty has fallen worldwide from 85 to 10 percent. Despite local setbacks, the world is more democratic than ever. Women are better educated, marrying later, earning more, and in more positions of power and influence. Racial prejudice and hate crimes have decreased since data were first recorded. The world is even getting smarter: In every country, IQ has been increasing by three points a decade.

  • Matt Ridley: The Epidemic Of Absence

    In this respect, the new news from recent science that most intrigues me is that we may have a way to explain why certain diseases are getting worse as we get richer. We are defeating infectious diseases, slowing or managing many diseases of ageing like heart disease and cancer, but we are faced with a growing epidemic of allergy, auto-immunity, and things like autism. Some of it is due to more diagnosis, some of it is no doubt hypochondria, but there does seem to be a real increase in these kinds of problems.
    This makes perfect sense. In the arms race with parasites, immune systems evolved to "expect" to be down-regulated by parasites, so they over-react in their absence. A good balance is reached when parasites try down-regulating the immune system, but it turns rogue when there are no parasites.

  • Noga Arikha: Neuro-news

    "In a stunning discovery that overturns decades of textbook teaching, researchers have determined that the brain is directly connected to the immune system by vessels previously thought not to exist. The discovery could have profound implications for diseases from autism to Alzheimer's to multiple sclerosis."

  • Nina Jablonski: Bugs R Us

    Since 2008, when the Human Microbiome Project officially started, hundreds of collaborating scientists have started to bring to light the nature and effects of the billions of bacteria that are part of our normal healthy bodies. There isn't one human microbiome, there are many: There is a microbiome in our hair, one up our nostrils, another in our vaginas, several lavishly differentiated on the vast real estate of our skin, and a veritable treasure trove in our gut, thanks to diligent subcontractors in the esophagus, stomach, and colon.

    This great menagerie undergoes changes as we age, so that some of the bacteria that were common and apparently harmless when we were young start to bother us when we're old, and vice versa. The taxonomic diversity and census of our resident bacteria are more than just subjects of scientific curiosity; they matter greatly to our health. The normal bacteria on our skin, for instance, are essential to maintaining the integrity of the skin's barrier functions. Many diseases, from psoriasis to obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, some cancers, and even cardiovascular disease, are associated with shifts in our microbiota.

  • Judith Rich Harris: The Truthiness Of Scientific Research

    I think there are two reasons for the decline of truth and the rise of truthiness in scientific research. First, research is no longer something people do for fun, because they're curious. It has become something that people are required to do, if they want a career in the academic world. Whether they enjoy it or not, whether they are good at it or not, they've got to turn out papers every few months or their career is down the tubes. The rewards for publishing have become too great, relative to the rewards for doing other things, such as teaching. People are doing research for the wrong reasons: not to satisfy their curiosity but to satisfy their ambitions.
    The second thing that has gone awry is the vetting of research papers. Most journals send out submitted manuscripts for review. The reviewers are unpaid experts in the same field, who are expected to read the manuscript carefully, make judgments about the importance of the results and the validity of the procedures, and put aside any thoughts of how the publication of this paper might affect their own prospects. It's a hard job that has gotten harder over the years, as research has become more specialized and data analysis more complex. I propose that this job should be performed by paid experts--accredited specialists in the analysis of research. Perhaps this could provide an alternative path into academia for people who don't particularly enjoy the nitty-gritty of doing research but who love ferreting out the flaws and virtues in the research of others.

  • S. Abbas Raza: r > g: Increasing Inequality Of Wealth And Income Is A Runaway Process

    The only solution to this growing problem, it seems, is the redistribution of the wealth concentrating within a tiny elite using instruments such as aggressive progressive taxation (such as exists in some European countries which show a much better distribution of wealth), but the difficulty in that is the obvious one that political policy-making is itself greatly affected by the level of inequality. This creates a vicious positive feedback loop which is making things even worse. It is clearly the case now in the United States that the rich are not only able to hugely influence government policy directly, but that elite forces are able to shape public opinion and affect election outcomes through large-scale propaganda efforts through media they own or can control. This double-edged sword is being used effectively to attack and shred democracy itself.

  • Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: The En-Gendering Of Genius

    The hypothesis that Leslie and Cimpian tested is one I've rarely seen put on the table and surely not in a testable form. They call it the FAB hypothesis--for field-specific ability beliefs. It focuses on the belief as to whether success in a particular field requires pure innate brilliance, the kind of raw intellectual power that can't be taught and for which no amount of conscientious hard work is a substitute.
    And here's the second surprise: the strength of the FABs in a particular field predicts the percentage of women in that field more accurately than other leading hypotheses, including field-specific variation in work-life balance and reliance on skills for systematizing vs. empathizing. In other words, what Cimpian and Leslie found is that the more that success within a field was seen as a function of sheer intellectual firepower, with words such as "gifted" and "genius" not uncommon, the fewer the women. The FAB hypothesis cut cleanly across the STEM/non-STEM divide.

  • Philip Tetlock: The Epistemic Trainwreck Of Soft-Side Psychology

    In our rushed quest to establish our scientific capacity to surprise smart outsiders plus help those who had long gotten the short end of the status stick, soft-siders had forgotten the normative formula that Robert Merton formulated in 1942 for successful social science, the CUDOS norms for protecting us from absurdities like Stalinist genetics and Aryan physics. The road to scientific hell is paved with political intentions, sometimes maniacally evil ones and sometimes profoundly well intentioned ones. If you value science as a purely epistemic game, the effects are equally corrosive. When you replace the pursuit of truth with the protection of dogma, you get politically-religiously tainted knowledge. Mertonian science imposes monastic discipline: it bars even flirting with ideologues.

  • Aubrey de Grey: Antibiotics Are Dead; Long Live Antibiotics!

    1. Antibiotics are generally synthesised in nature by bacteria (or other microbes) as defences against each other.
    2. We have identified antibiotics in the lab, and thus necessarily only those made by bacterial species that we can grow in the lab.
    3. Almost all bacterial species cannot be grown in the lab using practical methods.
    4. That hasn't changed for decades.
    5. But those bacteria grow fine in the environment, typically the soil.
    6. So... can we isolate antibiotics from the soil?

  • Paul Bloom: Science Itself

    The most exciting recent scientific news is about science itself: how it is funded, how scientists communicate with another, how findings get distributed to the public--and how it can go wrong. My own field of psychology has been Patient Zero here, with well-publicized cases of fraud, failures to replicate important studies, and a host of concerns, some of them well-founded, about how we do our experiments and analyze our results.

  • David G. Myers: We Fear the Wrong Things

    Underlying our exaggerated fears is the "availability heuristic": We fear what's readily available in memory. Vivid, cognitively available images--a horrific air crash, a mass slaughter--distort our judgments of risk. Thus, we remember--and fear--disasters (tornadoes, air crashes, attacks) that kill people dramatically, in bunches, while fearing too little the threats that claim lives one by one. We hardly notice the half-million children quietly dying each year from rotavirus, Bill Gates once observed--the equivalent of four 747s full of children every day. And we discount the future (and its future weapon of mass destruction, climate change).

  • Peter Turchin: Fatty Foods Are Good For Your Health

    In fact, there has never been any scientific evidence that cutting down total fat consumption has any positive effect on health; specifically, reduced risks of heart disease and diabetes. For years those who pointed this out were marginalized, but recently evidence debunking the supposed benefits of low-fat diets has reached a critical mass, so that a mainstream magazine such as Time could write in 2014: "Scientists labeled fat the enemy. Why they were wrong." And now the official Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee admits that much.

  • N.J. Enfield: Pointing Is A Prerequisite For Language

    Comparative psychology finds that pointing (in its full-blown form) is unique to our species. Few non-human species appear to be able to comprehend pointing (notably, domestic dogs can follow pointing while our closest relatives among the great apes cannot), and there is little evidence of pointing occuring spontaneously between members of any species other than our own. It appears that only humans have the social-cognitive infrastructure needed to support the kind of cooperative and prosocial motivations that pointing gestures presuppose.

  • Ellen Winner: Psychology's Crisis

    The field of psychology is experiencing a crisis. Our studies do not replicate. When Science published the results of attempts to replicate 100 studies, results were not confidence-inspiring, to say the least. The average effect sizes declined substantially, and while 97% of the original papers reported significant p values, only 36% of the replications did.

  • Gary Klein: Blinded By Data

    The concept of a critical period for developing vision was based on studies that David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel performed on cats and monkeys. The results showed that without visual signals during a critical period of development, vision is impaired for life. For humans, this critical window closes tight by the time a child is eight years old. (For ethical reasons, no comparable studies were run on humans.) Hubel and Wiesel won a Nobel Prize for their work. And physicians around the world stopped performing cataract surgery on children older than 8 years. The data were clear. But they were wrong. The results of the cataract surgeries on Indian teenagers disprove the critical period data.
    Other fields have run into the same problem. A few years ago the journal Nature reported a finding that the majority of cancer studies selected for review could not be replicated. In October 2015, Nature devoted a special issue to exploring various ideas for reducing the number of non-reproducible findings. Many others have taken up the issue of how to reduce the chances of unreliable data.
    The bedrock bias encourages us to make extreme efforts to eliminate false positives, but that approach would slow progress. A better perspective is to give up the quest for certainty and accept the possibility that any datum may be wrong. After all, skepticism is a mainstay of the scientific enterprise.

  • Bruce Hood: Biological Models of Mental Illness Reflect Essentialist Biases

    Ever since Emil Kraepelin at the end of the 19th century advocated that mental illnesses could be categorized into distinct disorders with specific biological causes, research and treatment has focused efforts on building classification systems of symptoms as a way of mapping the terrain for discovering the root biological problem and corresponding course of action. This medical model approach led to development of clinical nosology and the accompanying diagnostic manuals such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM)--the most recent fifth version published in 2013. However, that very same year, the National Institute of Mental Health announced that it would no longer be funding research projects that relied solely on the DSM criteria. This is because the medical model lacks validity.
    Approaches to mental illness are changing. It is not clear what will happen to the DSM as there are vested financial interests in maintaining the medical model, but in Europe there is a notable shift towards symptom-based approaches of treatment. It is also not in our nature to consider the complexity of humans other than with essentialist biases. We do this for race, age, gender, political persuasion, intelligence, humor and just about every dimension we use to describe someone--as if these attributes are at the core of who they are.

  • Rodney A. Brooks: Artificial Intelligence

    My own opinions on these topics are counter to the popular narrative, and mostly I think everyone is getting way ahead of himself or herself. Arthur C. Clarke's third law was that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. All of these news stories, and the experts who are driving them, seem to me to be jumping so far ahead of the state of the art in Artificial Intelligence, that they talk about a magic future variety of it, and as soon as magic is involved any consequence one desires, or fears, can easily be derived.

  • Steven R. Quartz: The State Of The World Isn't Nearly As Bad As You Think

    In reality, extreme poverty has nearly halved in the last twenty years-about a billion people have escaped it. Material wellbeing-income, declines in infant mortality, increases in life expectancy, educational access (particularly for females)-has increased at its greatest pace during the last few decades. The number of democracies in developing nations has tripled since the 1980s, while the number of people killed in armed conflicts has decreased by 75%. This isn't the place to delve into the details of how large-scale statistical datasets, and ones increasingly representative of the world's population, provide a more accurate, though deeply counter-intuitive, assessment of the state of the world.

  • Douglas Rushkoff: The Rejection of Science Itself

    I'm most interested by the news that an increasing number of people are rejecting science, altogether. With 31% of Americans believing that human beings have existed in their current form since the beginning, and only 35% percent agreeing that evolution happened through natural processes, it's no wonder that parents reject immunization for their children and voters support candidates who value fervor over fact.

  • Ara Norenzayan: Theodiversity

    One might think that religious denominations that have adapted to secular modernity the best are the ones that are thriving the most. But the evidence gleaned from the Pew report and other studies points in the exactly opposing direction. Moderate denominations are falling behind in the cultural marketplace. They are the losers caught between secular modernity and the fundamentalist strains of all major world religions, which are gaining steam as a result of conversion, higher fertility rates, or both.

    There are different types, shades, and intensities of disbelief. That's why the non-religious are another big ingredient of the world's astonishing and dynamically changing theodiversity. Combined, they would be the fourth largest "world religion." There are the atheists, but many nonbelievers instead are apatheists, who are indifferent towards but not opposed to religions. And there is the rising demographic tide of people who see themselves as "spiritual but not religious." This do-it-yourself, custom-made spirituality is filling the void that the retreat of organized religion is leaving behind in the secularizing countries. You can find it in yoga studios, meditation centers, the holistic health movement, and eco-spirituality.

  • Nicholas Humphrey: Sub-Prime Science

    The reality is that science itself has always been affected by "this human interest stuff." Personal vendettas, political and religious biases, stubborn adherence to pet ideas have in the past led even some of the greatest scientists to massage experimental data and skew theoretical interpretations. Happily, the body of scientific knowledge has continued to live and grow despite such human aberrations. In general scientists continue to play by the rules.

  • Gerd Gigerenzer: Fear Of Dread Risks

    Terrorism has indeed caused a huge death toll in countries such as Afghanistan, Syria, and Nigeria. But in Europe or North America a terrorist attack is not what will likely kill you. In a typical year, more Americans die from lightning than terrorism. A great many more die from second-hand smoke and "regular" gun violence. Even more likely, Americans can expect to lose their lives from preventable medical errors in hospitals, even in the best of them. The estimated number of unnecessary deaths has soared from up to 98,000 in 1999 to 440,000 annually, according to a recent study in the Journal of Patient Safety.
    Why are we scared of what most likely will not kill us? Psychology provides us with an answer. It is called fear of dread risks. This fear is elicited by a situation in which many people die within a short time. Note that the fear is not about dying, but about suddenly dying together with many others at one point of time. When as many--or more--people die distributed over the year, whether from gun violence, motorcycle accidents, or in hospital beds, it is hard to conjure up anxiety.

  • Gregory Paul: Modernity Is Winning

    But the even more important news that hardly any know is that modernity is winning as theism retracts in the face of the prosperity made possible by modern science and technology.

  • Joel Gold: The Thin Line Between Mental Illness And Mental Health

    There is clear evidence that large numbers of people who have no psychiatric diagnosis and are not in need of psychiatric treatment experience symptoms of psychosis, notably hallucinations and delusions.
    Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)--one of the most practiced forms of therapy--while commonly applied to mood, anxiety, and a host of other psychiatric disorders, also works with psychosis. This might seem to be inherently contradictory. By definition, a delusion is held tenaciously, despite evidence to the contrary. You aren't supposed to be able to talk someone out of a delusion. If you could, it wouldn't be a delusion, right? Surprisingly, this is not the case.

  • Pamela Rosenkranz: Microbial Attractions

    Sterility is not considered healthy anymore. Medicine is shifting from an antibiotic towards a probiotic approach and the idea of hygiene is becoming an organization of contamination rather, as opposed to disinfection.
    Current research points to how certain bacterial cultures cause anxiety, depression, and even Alzheimers, while others might be able to help alleviate these ailments.

  • Kate Jeffery: Memory Is a Labile Fabrication

    Very recently, it has been shown that memories aren't just fragile when they have been re-activated, they can actually be altered. Using some of the amazing new molecular genetic techniques that have been developed in the past three decades, it has become possible to identify which subset of neurons participated in the encoding of an event, and later experimentally re-activate only these specific neurons, so that the animal is forced (we believe) to recall the event. During this re-activation, scientists have been able to tinker with these memories so that they are different from the original ones.

  • Eric R. Weinstein: Anthropic Capitalism And The New Gimmick Economy

    We have strong growth without wage increases. Using Orwellian terms like "Quantitative Easing" or "Troubled Asset Relief", central banks print money and transfer wealth to avoid the market's verdict. Advertising and privacy transfer (rather than user fees) have become the business model of last resort for the Internet corporate giants. Highly trained doctors squeezed between expert systems and no-frills providers are moving from secure professionals towards service sector-workers.

  • Jonathan Schooler: The Infancy Of Meta-Science

    Meta-science, the science of science, attempts to use quantifiable scientific methodologies to elucidate how current scientific practices influence the veracity of scientific conclusions. This nascent endeavor is joining the agendas of a variety of fields including medicine, biology, and psychology--each seeking to understand why some initial findings fail to fully replicate.
    More generally, as we adopt a more meta-scientific perspective, researchers will hopefully increasingly appreciate that just as a single study cannot irrefutably demonstrate the existence of a phenomenon, neither can a single failure to replicate disprove it. Over time, scientists will likely become increasingly comfortable with meticulously documenting and (ideally) pre-registering all aspects of their research. They will see the replication of their work not as a threat to their integrity but rather as testament to their work's importance. They will recognize that replicating other findings is an important component of their scientific responsibilities. They will refine replication procedures to not only discern the robustness of findings, but to understand their boundary conditions, and the reasons why they sometimes (often?) decline in magnitude.

  • Joichi Ito: Fecal Microbiota Transplantation

    Fecal Microbiota Transplantation, or FMTs, have been shown to cure Clostridium difficile infections in 90 percent of cases, a condition notoriously difficult to treat any other way. We don't know exactly how FMTs work, other than that the introduction of microbiota (poop) from a healthy individual somehow causes the gut of an afflicted patient to regain its microbial diversity and rein in the rampant Clostridium difficile.
    As we understand more and more about the genome, the epigenome, the brain, and the variety of complex systems that make us what we are, and the more I learn about the microbiome, the more it feels like maybe modern medicine is like the proverbial aliens trying to understand human motivation by only looking at the cars on the freeway through a telescope and that we have a long way to go before we will really understand what's going on.

  • Hazel Rose Markus: The Platinum Rule: Dense, Heavy, But Worth It

    The variously attributed Platinum Rule holds that we should do unto others as they would have us do unto them.
    The challenge of holding to the Platinum Rule begins with the realization that it is not the Golden Rule--do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
    Yet built into the very foundation of the Golden Rule is that the assumption that what is good, desirable, just, respectful, and helpful for ME will also be good, desirable, just, respectful and helpful for YOU (or should be, and even it isn't right now, trust me, it will be eventually).

  • Ed Regis: The Healthy Diet U-Turn

    To me, the most interesting bit of news in the last couple of years was the sea-change in attitude among nutritional scientists from an anti-fat, pro-carbohydrate set of dietary recommendations to the promotion of a lower-carbohydrate, selectively pro-fat dietary regime.
    A corollary of this about-face in dietary wisdom was the realization that much of so-called nutritional "science" was actually bad science to begin with. Many of the canonical studies of diet and nutrition were flawed by selective use of evidence, unrepresentative sampling, absence of adequate controls, and shifting clinical trial populations. Furthermore, some of the principal investigators were prone to selection bias, and were loath to confront their preconceived viewpoints with contrary evidence.

  • Leo M. Chalupa: A Compelling Explanation For Science Misconduct

    The first of these is the apparent increase in the reported incidence of research findings that cannot be replicated. The causes for this are myriad. In some cases, this is simply because some vital piece of information, required to repeat a given experiment, has been inadvertently (or at times intentionally) omitted. More often, it is the result of sloppy work, such as poor experimental design, inappropriate statistical analysis, or lack of appropriate controls. But there is also evidence that scientific fraud is on the increase.
    A more compelling explanation is the fiercely competitive nature of science that has accelerated tremendously in recent years. Grants are much harder to get funded, so that even applications ranked by peer review as "very good" are no longer above the pay line.

  • Stuart Firestein: Fundamentally Newsworthy

    All this attention on the possible uses and misuses of CRISPR/Cas9 has obscured the real news--which is, in a way, old news. CRISPR/Cas9 is the fruit of years of fundamental research conducted by a few dedicated researchers who were interested in the arcane field of bacterial immunity. Not immunity to bacteria as you might at first think, but how bacteria protect themselves against attack by viruses.

  • Christian Keysers: Optogenetics

    Optogenetics is a surprising new field of biotechnology that gives us the means to transform brain activity into light and light into brain activity. It allows us to introduce fluorescent proteins into brain cells to make cells glow when they are active--thereby transforming neural activity into light. It also allows us to introduce photosensitive ion channels into neurons, so that shining light on the cells triggers activity or silences neurons at will--thereby transforming light into neural activity.

  • Alexander Wissner-Gross: Datasets Over Algorithms

    A review of the timing of the most publicized AI advances over the past thirty years suggests a provocative explanation: perhaps many major AI breakthroughs have actually been constrained by the availability of high-quality training datasets, and not by algorithmic advances.
    Examining these advances collectively, the average elapsed time between key algorithm proposals and corresponding advances was about eighteen years, whereas the average elapsed time between key dataset availabilities and corresponding advances was less than three years, or about six times faster, suggesting that datasets might have been limiting factors in the advances.

  • Steve Fuller: A Robust Challenge To The Value Of A University Education

    Just in time for the start of the 2015-16 academic year, the UK branch of one of the world's leading accounting firms, Ernst & Young, announced that it would no longer require a university degree as a condition of employment. Instead it would administer its own tests to prospective junior employees. In the future, this event will be seen as the tipping point towards the end of the university as an all-purpose credentials mill that feeds the "knowledge-based" economy.
    When one considers the massive public and, increasingly, private resources dedicated to funding universities, and the fact that both teaching and research at advanced levels can be--and have been--done more efficiently outside of universities, the social function of universities can no longer be taken for granted.

  • Richard Nisbett: The Disillusionment Hypothesis And The Decline and Disaffection For Poor White Americans

    Over the past 15 years or so, the mortality rate for poorly educated middle-aged whites living in the South and West in the U.S. increased significantly. Mortality did not increase for middle-aged blacks, Hispanics or any other ethnic group, nor for whites in other regions of the country, nor for poorly educated whites in other rich countries. The death rates that are most elevated are those for suicide, cirrhosis of the liver, heroin overdose and other causes suggesting self-destructive behavior.
    The disillusionment hypothesis has the virtue of explaining why it is that the support for Donald Trump is greatest today among ill-educated whites in the poorer, less cosmopolitan regions of the country.

Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Thu Dec 31 14:32:48 EST 2015

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently.

  • One man's health food is another man's junk food

    When you eat, you're also supplying the bacterial community in your colon, comprised of 100 trillion cells. The right food can help this micrbiome.

    An Israeli study, published last month in the medical journal "Cell," concludes that even after eating identical meals, the way those meals are then metabolized differs -- sometimes dramatically -- from one person to another.

    And in 'Healthy' foods differ by individual:

    An Israeli study tracking the blood sugar levels of 800 people over a week suggests that even if we all ate the same meal, how it's metabolized would differ from one person to another.
    To understand why such vast differences exist between people, the researchers conducted microbiome analyses on stool samples collected from each study participant. Growing evidence suggests gut bacteria are linked to obesity, glucose intolerance, and diabetes, and the study demonstrates that specific microbes indeed correlate with how much blood sugar rises post-meal. By conducting personalized dietary interventions among 26 additional study participants, the researchers were able to reduce post-meal blood sugar levels and alter gut microbiota. Interestingly, although the diets were personalized and thus greatly different across participants, several of the gut microbiota alterations were consistent across participants.

  • Health Care's Price Conundrum

    Atul Gawande

    The costs of care for the privately insured vary from town to town just as crazily as they do for the publicly insured. But the patterns are strikingly different. The most expensive places for Medicare are not the most expensive places for private insurers. In fact, there was essentially zero correlation between where a city ranks in Medicare spending and where it ranks in private-insurance spending--even when you only consider people undergoing the exact same procedure.
    When your grocery store is the only one in town, it can jack up prices without losing customers. The same goes for hospitals. The study found that hospital prices in monopoly markets are fifteen per cent higher than in those with four or more hospitals.

  • Aspirin targets key protein in neurodegenerative diseases

    A new study finds that a component of aspirin binds to an enzyme called GAPDH, which is believed to play a major role in neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Huntington's diseases.

  • Sad news: Scientists say happiness won't extend your life after all

    But a new paper published in the medical journal Lancet comes to the sad conclusion that happiness isn't responsible for this observed longevity. Instead, the things that make people happy, particularly their good health, are the same things that shield them from premature death.

  • The Birth And Death Of Privacy:

    3,000 Years of History Told Through 46 Images

    • Privacy, as we understand it, is only about 150 years old.
    • Humans do have an instinctual desire for privacy. However, for 3,000 years, cultures have nearly always prioritized convenience and wealth over privacy.
    • Section II will show how cutting edge health technology will force people to choose between an early, costly death and a world without any semblance of privacy. Given historical trends, the most likely outcome is that we will forgo privacy and return to our traditional, transparent existence.

  • Capitalists should listen to Bernie Sanders

    For example: Globalization has "elevated the living standards of hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people worldwide" but also "has helped suppress the incomes of low-skilled middle-class workers in rich countries." Where do our loyalties lie? How do we balance obligations to our fellow citizens in the communities and countries in which we live against the interests of those far away? And how do the vast disparities of wealth that the system creates constrain the very process of democratic deliberation over what to do about it?
    You don't need to be a democratic socialist to believe this. On the contrary, the survival of democratic capitalism depends upon facing the difficulties the system is having in delivering on the promises it was once able to keep.

  • What Hillary Clinton Gets (and Bernie Sanders Doesn't) About Wall Street

    If you agree with Democrats that Wall Street should be reformed, Hillary Clinton's more comprehensive solution better grasps the world of finance today.

    Clinton's beyond-the-banks rhetoric, in the op-ed and in the debate itself, is meant to position her as tougher on the finance industry than Sanders, a move that is hard for her to make convincingly--one has the sense that Sanders would strip every last cufflink off every investment banker, if he could. If you agree with the Democrats that Wall Street should be reformed, though, Clinton's more comprehensive solution better grasps the world of finance today. Not only are Sanders's bogeybanks just one part of Wall Street but they are getting less powerful and less problematic by the year. "It ain't complicated," Sanders said during the debate. But Clinton is right: it is.

  • Cronyism Causes the Worst Kind of Inequality

    When a country succumbs to cronyism, friends of the rulers are able to appropriate large amounts of wealth for themselves -- for example, by being awarded government-protected monopolies over certain markets, as in Russia after the fall of communism. That will obviously lead to inequality of income and wealth. It will also make the economy inefficient, since money is flowing to unproductive cronies. Cronyism may also reduce growth by allowing the wealthy to exert greater influence on political policy, creating inefficient subsidies for themselves and unfair penalties for their rivals.
    The relationship between wealth inequality and growth was negative, as the IMF and others had found for income inequality. But only one kind of inequality was associated with low growth -- the kind that came from cronyism.

  • Why "Economic Inequality" Is a Bogus Issue

    It's true that wages have been stagnant for much of the middle class over the last few years. Yet our purchasing power is still expanding.

    For example, economists Donald Boudreaux and Mark Perry note that spending by households on most of modern life's "basics" -- food, clothing, housing, household furnishings and utilities -- fell from 53% of disposable income in 1950 to 44% in 1970 to 32% today.

    ... It's true that the richest have gotten richer faster than the rest of us. But the tide is rising for us all.

    ... Even our poor are rich by historical standards. Most Americans living under the poverty line today live in larger accommodations than the average European.

    If the previous link about cronyism isn't enough to cause you to think this guy is wrong, be sure to read the comments to his article,

  • Why do Nigerian Scammers Say They are from Nigeria?

    Far-fetched tales of West African riches strike most as comical. Our analysis suggests that is an advantage to the attacker, not a disadvantage. Since his attack has a low density of victims the Nigerian scammer has an over-riding need to reduce false positives. By sending an email that repels all but the most gullible the scammer gets the most promising marks to self-select, and tilts the true to false positive ratio in his favor.

  • Annuity Wars Highlight Rift Between Factions

    Are annuities just a trap set for uninformed investors or valuable retirement tool? It depends on who you ask: Ken Fisher or Moshe Milevsky

  • The Return of Werner Erhard, Father of Self-Help

    But it was the Church of Scientology that actually drove him out of the country. According to Mr. Erhard, the "60 Minutes" allegations were the culmination of a smear campaign organized by Scientology officials to get back at him for poaching clients and ideas."
    He also did some consulting work for Landmark, the Forum's successor, run by his brother Harry Rosenberg.

  • Are Successful CEOs Just Lucky?

    A series of recent papers help answer that question, by quantifying the roles of luck, ability, and experience in CEOs' success. Together they suggest two conclusions: first, no single trait or skill seems to explain CEO performance; and second, luck plays a very large role.

  • Do all living organisms on Earth share one ultimate common ancestor?

    Or did life begin more than once in separate places?

    The current view is that all life on Earth evolved from one common ancestral population, instead of evolving multiple times (which, by the way, is a perfectly valid hypothesis).
    The model predicts that descent from a universal common ancestor is at least 10^2,860 times more probable than the closest competing hypothesis!

  • Climate models and precautionary measures

    One can sidestep the "skepticism" of those who question existing climate-models, by framing risk in the most straight-forward possible terms, at the global scale. That is, we should ask "what would the correct policy be if we had no reliable models?"
    The popular belief that uncertainty undermines the case for taking seriously the 'climate crisis' that scientists tell us we face is the opposite of the truth. Properly understood, as driving the case for precaution, uncertainty radically underscores that case, and may even constitute it.

  • The French Gender-Bender Coming for American Pop

    French pop star Christine and the Queens

    My favorite music act of the moment. I like how she sounds and how she moves.

  • Dan Sperber on The Argumentative Theory of Reason

    Interview by Julia Galef on the Rationally Speaking Podcast.

    The traditional story about reason is that it evolved to help humans see the world more clearly and (thereby) make better decisions. But on that view, some mysteries remain: why is the human brain so biased? Why are we so much better at defending our pre-existing views than at evaluating new ideas objectively?
    In this episode of Rationally Speaking, Julia talks with guest Dan Sperber, professor of cognitive and social sciences, who is famous for advancing an alternate view of reason: that it evolved to help us argue with our fellow humans and convince them that we're right.

Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Wed Dec 23 13:49:00 EST 2015

The Long Peace?

Attacks on Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined and his rebuttal.

  • The "Long Peace" is a Statistical Illusions

    Nassim Nicholas Taleb: Author of Antifragile, Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan.

    This includes 3 articles, the first a nontechnical discussion of the book by science writer S. Pinker, the second a technical discussion of the flaw in Pinker's book published in Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and Applications, the third a technical discussion of what I call the Pinker Problem, a corruption of the law of large numbers.

  • Fooled by Belligerence: Comments on Nassim Taleb's "The Long Peace is a Statistical Illusion"

    Pinker's rebuttal to Taleb. It begins:

    I was surprised to learn that Nassim Taleb had a problem with my book The Better Angels of Our Nature, because its analysis of war and terrorism harmonizes with Taleb's signature themes. The chapter on major war begins with 21 pages on historians' overinterpretation of temporal trends in war and could have been called "Fooled by Randomness." It was followed dozen pages on the thick-tailed distribution of the magnitudes of wars which could have been subtitled "The Black Swan." Yet rather than acknowledging our similar mindsets, Taleb has come out swinging, pummeling away at what he thinks is the message of the book, accompanied by a stream of trash-talk about my statistical competence.

    Taleb shows no signs of having read 'Better Angels' with the slightest attention to its content. Instead he has merged it in his mind with claims by various fools and knaves whom he believes he has bettered in the past. The confusion begins with his remarkable claim that the thesis in 'Better Angels' is "identical" to Ben Bernanke's theory of a moderation in the stock market. Identical! This alone should warn readers that for all of Taleb's prescience about the financial crisis, accurate attribution and careful analysis of other people's ideas are not his strong suits.

  • On the statistical properties and tail risk of violent conflicts

    Long mathematical paper by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, et al. claiming to disprove Pinker.

    We examine statistical pictures of violent conflicts over the last 2000 years, finding techniques for dealing with incompleteness and unreliability of historical data.
    All the statistical pictures obtained are at variance with the prevailing claims about "long peace", namely that violence has been declining over time.

  • Violent warfare is on the wane, right?

    Mark Buchanan: Physicist and author, former editor with Nature and New Scientist.

    Many optimists think so. But a close look at the statistics suggests that the idea just doesn't add up.

  • John Gray: Steven Pinker is wrong about violence and war

    A new orthodoxy, led by Pinker, holds that war and violence in the developed world are declining. The stats are misleading, argues Gray -- and the idea of moral progress is wishful thinking and plain wrong.

I find it interesting how vociferous people are on both sides of what is essentially a science and math argument. It seems to me good evidence for (something I've blogged about before) The Argumentative Theory.

"Reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments.

I wonder if how one interprets the numbers for violence depends on whether they lean more to optimism or pessimism?

Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Wed Nov 25 21:11:28 EST 2015

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently.

  • Glenn Greenwald: Why the CIA is smearing Edward Snowden after the Paris attacks

    The real objective is to depict Silicon Valley as terrorist-helpers for the crime of offering privacy protections to Internet users.

    The CIA's blame-shifting game, aside from being self-serving, was deceitful in the extreme. To begin with, there still is no evidence that the perpetrators in Paris used the Internet to plot their attacks, let alone used encryption technology.
    The claim that the Paris attackers learned to use encryption from Snowden is even more misleading. For many years before anyone heard of Snowden, the U.S. government repeatedly warned that terrorists were using highly advanced means of evading American surveillance.

  • Foolproof by Greg Ip -- book review

    The biggest risk we can take is to allow ourselves to feel safe

    Constructing giant levees to contain mighty rivers makes people feel safe enough to build on the floodplain, making the consequences of future floods far worse. Introducing helmets and face masks in American football has increased some kinds of injury, because players can use their heads as a battering ram.

    More, including a presentation with slides, at Why Safety Can Be Dangerous: A Conversation with Gregory Ip.

    In Foolproof, Ip looks at how we often force new, unexpected risks to develop in unexpected places as we seek to minimize risk from crises like financial downturns and natural disasters. This is a phenomenon only likely to increase as our financial systems and cities become more complex and interconnected, but Ip concludes that these crises actually benefit society.

  • Agriculture Linked to DNA Changes in Ancient Europe

    The agricultural revolution was one of the most profound events in human history, leading to the rise of modern civilization. Now, in the first study of its kind, an international team of scientists has found that after agriculture arrived in Europe 8,500 years ago, people's DNA underwent widespread changes, altering their height, digestion, immune system and skin color.

    What's the significance of that for current paleo diet mythology?

  • The Algorithm That Creates Diets That Work for You

    It crunches hundreds of factors to make personalized plans for controlling blood sugar. Some people even get cake and cookies.

    The team found a huge amount of variation between the volunteers. The same food would cause huge sugar spikes in some people but tiny blips in others. The volunteers also differed substantially in the foods that triggered the sharpest spikes: Participant 445, for example, reacted strongly to bananas, while participant 644 spiked heavily post-cookies.
    Zeevi and Korem showed that these personal differences were influenced by familiar factors like age and body mass index, and also less familiar ones like gut microbes. They found several groups of bacteria, and families of bacterial genes, that were linked to stronger PPGRs (postprandial glycemic responses).

  • AMA Calls for Ban on Direct to Consumer Advertising of Prescription Drugs and Medical Devices

    "Today's vote in support of an advertising ban reflects concerns among physicians about the negative impact of commercially-driven promotions, and the role that marketing costs play in fueling escalating drug prices," said AMA Board Chair-elect Patrice A. Harris, M.D., M.A. "Direct-to-consumer advertising also inflates demand for new and more expensive drugs, even when these drugs may not be appropriate."

    Why was this ever allowed in the first place?

  • Single course of antibiotics can mess up the gut microbiome for a year

    Mouth microbes, on the other hand, don't seem to care.

    Gut microbial diversity was significantly altered by all four kinds of antibiotics, which lasted for months. In participants that took ciprofloxacin, microbial diversity was altered for up to 12 months. The antibiotic treatments also caused a spike in genes associated with antibiotic resistance. Lastly, the researchers noted that clindamycin killed off microbes that produce butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid that inhibit inflammation, carcinogenesis, and oxidative stress in the gut.

  • Scientists Confirm There's Nothing But Misinformation On Anti-Vax Sites

    Even when sites did cite peer-reviewed studies, their interpretations were flawed.

    For example, of the nearly 500 anti-vaccination websites examined in the study, nearly two-thirds claimed that vaccines cause autism, the researchers found. However, multiple studies have shown that there is no link between vaccines and autism.
    About two-thirds of the websites used information that they represented as scientific evidence, but in fact was not, to support their claims that vaccines are dangerous, and about one-third used people's anecdotes to reinforce those claims, the scientists found.
    Some websites also cited actual peer-reviewed studies as their sources of information, but they misinterpreted and misrepresented the findings of these studies.

  • Big Sugar and Big Corn settle bitter battle over sweeteners outside court

    terms kept secret

    The deal midway through a trial in Los Angeles federal court was announced in a short statement that sugar-coated the hostility that emerged from dueling lawsuits over losses each side blamed on efforts by their rival to win over consumers.
    Sugar processors had sought $1.5 billion in a false-advertising claim against corn refiners and agribusinesses giants Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill and other companies after they tried to rebrand their publicity-plagued product as "corn sugar."
    Corn refiners and the companies countersued for $530 million, saying they suffered after the sugar industry made false and misleading statements that included a comment that high fructose corn syrup was as addictive as crack cocaine.

    In a battle against an infection, antibiotics can bring victory over enemy germs. Yet that war-winning aid can come with significant collateral damage; microbial allies and innocents are killed off, too. Such casualties may be unavoidable in some cases, but a lot of people take antibiotics when they're not necessary or appropriate. And the toll of antibiotics on a healthy microbiome can, in some places, be serious, a new study suggests.

  • Population Implosion: How Demographics Rule the Global Economy

    The developed world's workforce will start to decline next year, threatening future global growth

    Ever since the global financial crisis, economists have groped for reasons to explain why growth in the U.S. and abroad has repeatedly disappointed, citing everything from fiscal austerity to the euro meltdown. They are now coming to realize that one of the stiffest headwinds is also one of the hardest to overcome: demographics.

  • How Apple Is Giving Design A Bad Name

    by Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini

    Now, although the products are indeed even more beautiful than before, that beauty has come at a great price. Gone are the fundamental principles of good design: discoverability, feedback, recovery, and so on. Instead, Apple has, in striving for beauty, created fonts that are so small or thin, coupled with low contrast, that they are difficult or impossible for many people with normal vision to read. We have obscure gestures that are beyond even the developer's ability to remember. We have great features that most people don't realize exist.

  • Scan a book in five minutes?

    'Smart scanner' with foot pedal and WiFi support

    Not available yet and a gamble, but:

    The Czur's creators at CzurTek describe their baby as "the world's first true smart scanner... Czur can scan books easily and connect to WiFi. Czur is faster than any scanner in the world, and also is a video projector." A 32-bit MIPS CPU and fast software for scanning and correction allow you to do the job at a clip of a page a second or so, aided by a foot pedal included with the scanner. Yes, there's supposed to be first-rate OCR. The Czur also stands out because of the WiFi capabilities you can use to create a book cloud for tablet, e-reader or cell phone, as well as for the visual presentation capabilities, complete with an HDMI port for direct connection to a projector.

  • Open Payments Data

    Includes an online search tool to discover how much drug companies are paying your doctor.

  • Personal Essay on Bell Telephone Laboratories

    by A. Michael Noll (April 8, 2012)

    It is impossible to obtain a feel for what it was like at Bell Telephone Laboratories by looking at memos and other archival documents. You had to be there. This article reports my experiences in working there in the research area during the 1960s--a period that is considered to be part of its golden years.
    Less than 10 percent of the work done at Bell Telephone Laboratories was basic or fundamental research (performed mostly at the Murray Hill, NJ facility). But that research had significant impact on today's world of communication. Of the roughly 22,000 people who worked there in the early 1980s, about 1500 were in the research area. The cost of the research portion of the R&D work was about only one-tenth of the average phone bill--a real bargain.

  • Tangled Up in Entanglement

    By Lawrence M. Krauss

    Unfortunately for Einstein, entanglement, "spooky" or not, is apparently real, as researchers in the Netherlands demonstrated last week, just in time for Halloween. In doing so, the researchers affirmed once again that quantum mechanics, as strange as it may seem, works in every way we can test it.
    Quantum theory, however, suggests that objects which have been carefully prepared together and placed into a combined quantum state can, even when separated across the galaxy, remain "entangled," as long as neither has any significant interactions with other objects to break the entanglement. If I perform a measurement on one of two entangled objects, the state of the other object will be instantaneously affected, no matter how far apart the two objects are.

Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Thu Nov 19 17:19:32 EST 2015


  • Economic and Political Inequality

    From the Seven Pillars Institute (SPI), a five part balanced overview on the topic of inequality.
  • Income and Wealth Inequality in the United States: Evidence, Causes and Solutions

    Debate: J. Bradford DeLong and R. Glenn Hubbard

    Video of public debate held February 3 2015 at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy featuring R. Glenn Hubbard, Ph.D., Dean and Russell L. Carson Professor of Finance and Economics, Columbia Business School versus J. Bradford DeLong, Ph.D., Professor of Economics, University of California, Berkeley.

  • The Poor in the US Are Richer than the Middle Class in Much of Europe

    We get much more insight, though, once we have a look at what UNICEF means by "poverty rate." In this case, UNICEF (and many other organizations) measure the poverty rate as a percentage of the national median household income. UNICEF uses 60% of median as the cut off. So, if you're in Portugal, and your household earns under 60% of the median income in Portugal, you are poor. If you are in the US and you earn under 60% of the US median income, then you are also poor.

    The problem here, of course, is that median household incomes -- and what they can buy -- differs greatly between the US and Portugal. In relation to the cost of living, the median income in the US is much higher than the median income in much of Europe. So, even someone who earns under 60% of the median income in the US will, in many cases, have higher income than someone who earns the median income in, say, Portugal.
    So, yes, the US has a higher poverty rate than many other countries, but the standard of living available to a person at poverty levels in the US is higher than it is to a person at poverty levels in places like the UK, Spain, Italy, France, Japan, New Zealand, and others.

  • The End of Outrage?

    If inequality is such a growing concern, why are no Americans taking to the streets?

    In a provocative new book, the critic and historian Steve Fraser tries to explain why mass protest on the left has become so scarce in what he aptly calls The Age of Acquiescence. For Fraser, the main culprits are not such usual suspects as right-wing politicians and the market power of global corporations but public admiration for workaholic entrepreneurs whose self-serving definition of freedom legitimizes their reign.
    ... Fraser describes how freedom, which bygone progressive movements and liberal icons like Franklin Roosevelt defined as a collective goal ("freedom from want," "freedom from fear," etc.), has now become synonymous with the "free market" in which every man and woman supposedly has the same chance to rise or go under.

  • Why Americans Don't Want to Soak the Rich

    With rising income inequality in the United States, you might expect more and more people to conclude that it's time to soak the rich. Here's a puzzle, though: Over the last several decades, close to the opposite has happened.

    In other words, respondents favored less redistribution if they believed that the person had already grown accustomed to a higher income. The psychology seems to be something like this: Rich people who have been rich for a while have gotten used to their money, so it would be unfair to tax them heavily. But people who have just gotten rich have not become accustomed to higher levels of after-tax income, so it wouldn't be as harmful to raise their taxes in the interest of greater equality.
    ... The shift away from a belief in redistribution has been stronger among older Americans than any other age group.

  • Why Inequality Persists in America - The New Yorker

    Richer and Poorer: Accounting for inequality

    Income inequality is greater in the United States than in any other democracy in the developed world.
    The causes of income inequality are much disputed; so are its costs. And knowing the numbers doesn't appear to be changing anyone's mind about what, if anything, should be done about it.

  • Low hanging fruit and the inequality question

    Scott Sumner

    We did have a tax on luxury goods, which seems like a really good idea if you are worried about inequality.
    ... So the tax was a huge success, which reduced the only kind of inequality that matters, consumption inequality. But apparently some progressives who supported the tax had hoped that it could raise lots of revenue for the government without actually depressing the living standards of America's rich. That would occur, of course, only if the rich maintained their living standards by donating less money to charity and investing less money in new capital formation. Instead, the rich actually did reduce their living standards, and America was on the road to greater economic equality. Senator Kennedy, et al, reacted in shock and horror and had the bill repealed. Meanwhile Massachusetts is among the leaders in taxing the poor via the lottery and cigarettes.

  • Inequality v growth

    Up to a point, redistributing income to fight inequality can lift growth

    Some inequality is needed to propel growth, economists reckon. Without the carrot of large financial rewards, risky entrepreneurship and innovation would grind to a halt. In 1975 Arthur Okun, an American economist, argued that societies cannot have both perfect equality and perfect efficiency and must choose how much of one to sacrifice for the other.
    While most economists continue to hold that view, the recent rise in inequality has prompted a new look at its economic costs. Inequality could impair growth if those with low incomes suffer poor health and low productivity as a result. It could threaten public confidence in growth-boosting policies like free trade, reckons Dani Rodrik, of the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton. Or it could sow the seeds of crisis. In a 2010 book Raghuram Rajan, now governor of the Reserve Bank of India, argued that governments often respond to inequality by easing the flow of credit to poorer households. When the borrowing binge ends everyone suffers.

  • Tyler Cowen's Three-Card Monte on Inequality

    Tyler Cowen used his Upshot piece this week to tell us that the real issue is not inequality, but rather mobility. We want to make sure that our children have the opportunity to enjoy better lives than we do. And for this we should focus on productivity growth which is the main determinant of wealth in the long-run.
    This piece ranks high in terms of being misleading. First, even though productivity growth has been relatively slow since 1973, the key point is that most of the population has seen few of the gains of the productivity growth that we have seen over the last forty years. Had they shared equally in the productivity gains over this period, the median wage would be close to 50 percent higher than it is today. The minimum wage would be more than twice as high. If we have more rapid productivity growth over the next four decades, but we see the top 1.0 percent again getting the same share as it has since 1980, then most people will benefit little from this growth.

    The next point that comes directly from this first point is that it is far from clear that inequality does not itself impede productivity growth. While it can of course be coincidence, it is striking that the period of rapid productivity growth was a period of relative equality. At the very least it is hard to make the case that we have experienced some productivity dividend from the inequality of the post-1980 period.

  • No, The Decline in Marriage Did Not Increase Inequality

    Sean McElwee and Marshall I. Steinbaum: The New York Times' David Leonhardt gets it wrong.

    It is facile to divide rising inequality into "between" and "within" effects with respect to household types, and to argue that since inequality between types has grown and more households are now in worse-off types, changing family structure has caused inequality to increase. The evidence shows that family structure has changed because economic opportunities for most people have worsened. Why has that happened? There are some suggestive answers, but much more research is necessary. Leonhardt's claim that changing family structure causes rising inequality simply doesn't hold up.

Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Fri Oct 30 23:18:29 EDT 2015

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently:

  • Another flu vaccine myth--Big Pharma profits

    Today's myth is that the flu vaccine is being pushed because of money--that the flu vaccine somehow fills the coffers of the pharmaceutical industry.

    • Flu vaccine sales are small portion of worldwide pharmaceutical company revenues, less than 0.3%.
    • The Big Three flu vaccine manufacturers make less than 4.5% of their total corporate revenues with the vaccine.
    • Other pharmaceutical products have up to 10% greater gross profits than vaccines. The better strategic choice for Big Pharma companies is in other drugs.
    • If Big Pharma stopped making vaccines, they would probably make more money at a higher profit percentage.
  • Study: Antioxidant use may promote spread of cancer

    Researchers suggest that pro-oxidants may help to prevent metastasis of cancer.

    While antioxidants may be good for healthy people, researchers found they promote cancer growth in a study with mice.

    The study, researchers said, echoes some other study results showing cancer patients' tumors actually grew while being treated with antioxidants.

  • GMOs and Junk Science

    But scientists occasionally "go rogue," forsaking the scientific method -- often for notoriety or economic gain -- to produce propaganda and to sow fear in a public that lacks expertise but is hungry for information. This abuse of scientific authority is especially widespread in the "organic" and "natural" food industries, which capitalize on people's fear of synthetic or "unnatural" products.
    But the problems with Ayyadurai's paper are legion. Its title alone is enough to show that something is amiss. If you think that GMOs might "accumulate formaldehyde" -- a chemical that is probably carcinogenic at high levels but is present in most living cells and found widely in our environment -- the obvious response would be to measure its levels in the organisms. Ayyadurai, however, chose to make guesses based on modeling via "systems biology."

  • Why Hillary Would Make a Better President Than Bernie

    Clinton's skill as a bureaucratic infighter makes her the right pick for an era of political gridlock. As president, Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton would have to use executive power, stacking the courts, empowering Cabinet officials, shaping regulatory boards.

    That's not to say their rhetoric isn't important. That Sanders believes in a "political revolution" against money in politics tells you about his priorities as president. And Clinton's legislative incrementalism gives you a good signpost to how she'll work with Congress. But, the truth is that--in terms of writing new laws--both agendas are inert. They aren't passing Congress. Indeed, if Democrats hold the White House, they'll hold an inverse presidency of sorts. Like a second-term president, Clinton or Sanders will have to focus on executive power. To have legislative traction, she or he would have to wait for broader shifts to the electorate, as well as redistricting in 2020. It's only then that the big plans are plausible.

  • Sen. Bernard Sanders Congressional Record

    24 Sponsored Bills (Ranks 44 of 98) 0 Made Into Law (Ranks 21 of 98)

    138 Co-Sponsored Bills (Ranks 54 of 100) 0 Made Into Law (Ranks 73 of 100)

  • Why U.S. politics are a disaster

    The states that have the highest levels of inequality, or the fastest growth in equality, have also tended to see the most political polarization, the paper says.

  • If You're Not Paranoid, You're Crazy

    As government agencies and tech companies develop more and more intrusive means of watching and influencing people, how can we live free lives?

  • Why too much choice is stressing us out

    From jeans to dating partners and TV subscriptions to schools, we think the more choices we have the better. But too many options create anxiety and leave us less satisfied. Could one answer lie in a return to the state monopolies of old?

    Increased choice, then, can make us miserable because of regret, self-blame and opportunity costs. Worse, increased choice has created a new problem: the escalation in expectations.
    Schwartz's suggestion is that, at a certain point, choice shifts from having a positive relationship with happiness to an inverse one. So, what's the answer? "The secret to happiness is low expectations," he says, sensibly.

  • The Reign of Recycling

    Once you exclude paper products and metals, the total annual savings in the United States from recycling everything else in municipal trash -- plastics, glass, food, yard trimmings, textiles, rubber, leather -- is only two-tenths of 1 percent of America's carbon footprint.

    As a business, recycling is on the wrong side of two long-term global economic trends. For centuries, the real cost of labor has been increasing while the real cost of raw materials has been declining. That's why we can afford to buy so much more stuff than our ancestors could. As a labor-intensive activity, recycling is an increasingly expensive way to produce materials that are less and less valuable.

  • Can You Get Smarter?

    Can you get smarter by exercising -- or altering -- your brain?

    In the end, you can't yet exceed your innate intelligence. But that seems less important than the fact that there is much that you can do to reach your cognitive potential and to keep it. Forget the smart drugs and supplements; put on your shorts and go exercise. If you're 60 and up, consider brain training. And do it all with your friends.

  • Don't Worry so Much About Your Memory Loss

    New research published Aug. 26 in the journal Neurology studied 239 people drawn from several other larger study populations and found that those with the onset of significant dementia, no matter what its cause, forget that they are forgetting things. They gradually drift into a state in which they are unaware of the problem.

Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Tue Oct 20 14:18:48 EDT 2015

Forecasting Tournaments

Does Philip Tetlock hold the key to accurate predictions?
Seeing Into the Future

Within all the teams, researchers ran experiments -- for example, pitting individuals against groups -- to see which methods improved accuracy. The essential insight? Prediction accuracy is possible when people participate in a setup that rewards only accuracy -- and not the novelty of the explanation, or loyalty to the party line, or the importance of keeping up your reputation. It is within this condition that the "supers," the top 2 percent of each group, emerged.

Every prominent pundit who was invited to participate in the tournament declined. Put it this way, Tetlock says: "If you have an influential column and a Nobel Prize and big speaking engagements and you're in Davos all the time -- if you have all the status cards -- why in God's name would you ever agree to play in a tournament where the best possible outcome is to break even?"

... Now that we know some limitations, and strengths, of forecasters, Tetlock wants to focus on asking the right questions. He hopes to create what Kahneman has called "adversarial collaboration tournaments" -- for instance, bringing together two politically opposed groups to discuss the Iran nuclear deal. One group thinks it's great, one group thinks it's terrible, and each must generate 10 questions that everyone will answer.

The idea is that each side will generate questions with answers that favor their position, and that, with everyone forced to consider all questions, a greater level of understanding will emerge.

Good Judgment™ Open

Compete in the GJ Open against the smartest crowd online -- the one that decisively won the 4 year ACE forecasting tournament!

Edge Master Class 2015: Philip Tetlock: A Short Course in Superforecasting

On the weekend of July 30th, Edge convened one of its "Master Classes."

... This year, the psychologist and social scientist Philip E. Tetlock presented the findings based on his work on forecasting as part of the Good Judgment Project. In 1984, Tetlock began holding "forecasting tournaments" in which selected candidates were asked questions about the course of events: In the wake of a natural disaster, what policies will be changed in the United States? When will North Korea test nuclear weapons? Candidates examine the questions in teams. They are not necessarily experts, but attentive, shrewd citizens.

... Over the weekend in Napa, Tetlock held five classes, which are being presented by Edge in their entirety (8.5 hours of video and audio) along with accompanying transcripts (61,000 words).

  • Edge Short Course in Superforecasting, Class I

    Forecasting Tournaments: What We Discover When We Start Scoring Accuracy

    If you read Tom Friedman's columns carefully, you'll see that he does make a lot of implicit predictions.

    . . . He's warned us about a number of things and uses the language of could or may -- various things could or might happen. When you ask people what do "could" or "might" mean in isolation, they mean anything from about .1 probability to about .85 probability. They have a vast range of possible meanings. This means that it's virtually impossible to assess the empirical track record of Tom Friedman, and Tom Friedman is by no means alone. It's not at all usual for pundits to make extremely forceful claims about violent nationalist backlashes or impending regime collapses in this or that place, but to riddle it with vague verbiage quantifiers of uncertainty that could mean anything from .1 to .9.

    It is as though high status pundits have learned a valuable survival skill, and that survival skill is they've mastered the art of appearing to go out on a limb without actually going out on a limb. They say dramatic things but there are vague verbiage quantifiers connected to the dramatic things. It sounds as though they're saying something very compelling and riveting. There's a scenario that's been conjured up in your mind of something either very good or very bad. It's vivid, easily imaginable.

    It turns out, on close inspection they're not really saying that's going to happen. They're not specifying the conditions, or a time frame, or likelihood, so there's no way of assessing accuracy. You could say these pundits are just doing what a rational pundit would do because they know that they live in a somewhat stochastic world. They know that it's a world that frequently is going to throw off surprises at them, so to maintain their credibility with their community of co-believers they need to be vague. It's an essential survival skill. There is some considerable truth to that, and forecasting tournaments are a very different way of proceeding. Forecasting tournaments require people to attach explicit probabilities to well-defined outcomes in well-defined time frames so you can keep score.

  • Edge Short Course in Superforecasting, Class II

    Tournaments: Prying Open Closed Minds in Unnecessarily Polarized Debates

    Four Performance Drivers in Tournaments:

    • Get Right People on Bus

      10-15% boost from screening forecasters on fluid intelligence/ active open-mindedness.
    • Benefits of Interaction

      10-20% boost: Forecasters do better working either collaboratively in teams or competitively in predictions markets.
    • Benefits of Training

      10% boost: Cognitive debiasing exercises help
    • Benefits of Elitist/Extremizing Algorithms

      15-30% boost: more weight to better forecasters AND then "extremize" to compensate for conservatism of aggregate forecasts ("super-fox" strategy)

    ... the Good Judgment Project outperformed a prediction market inside the intelligence community, which was populated with professional analysts who had classified information, by 25 or 30 percent, which was about the margin by which the superforecasters were outperforming our own prediction market in the external world.

  • Edge Short Course in Superforecasting, Class III

    Counterfactual History: The Elusive Control Groups in Policy Debates

    The U.S. intelligence community does not believe it's appropriate to hold analysts accountable for the accuracy of their forecasts. It believes it's appropriate to hold analysts accountable for the processes by which they reach their conclusions. It's not appropriate to judge them on the basis of the accuracy of their conclusions when their conclusions are about the future.

  • Edge Short Course in Superforecasting, Class IV

    Skillful Backward and Forward Reasoning in Time: Superforecasting Requires "Counterfactualizing"

    A lot of human beings take a certain umbrage at the thought that they're just an algorithm. A lot of superforecasters would not. They would be quite open to the possibility that you could create a statistical model of their judgment policies in particular domains, and that statistical model might, in the long run, outperform themselves because it's performed more reliably. They're quite open to that. Most people do not like that idea very much. That's another way in which superforecasters, not all of them, as Barb is pointing out, as they're a somewhat heterogeneous group, but the best among them would be quite open to that idea.

    ... Creativity is one of those buzzwords. I'm a little hesitant to talk about creativity. There are things they do that feel somewhat creative, but what they mostly do is they think very carefully and they think carefully about how they think. They're sensitive to blind spots, and they kick themselves pretty hard when they slip into what they knew was a trap. They slip into it anyway because some of these traps are sneaky and they're hard to avoid.

  • Edge Short Course in Superforecasting, Class V

    Condensing it All Into Four Big Problems and a Killer App Solution

    The first big problem I see is that in virtually all high stakes policy debates we observe now, the participants are motivated less by pure accuracy goals than they are by an assortment of other goals. They're motivated by ego defense, defending their past positions, they're motivated by self-promotion, claiming credit for things (correctly or incorrectly), they're motivated to affirm their loyalty to a community of co-believers because the status of pundits hinges critically on where they stand in their social networks. If you're a liberal or a conservative high profile pundit, you know that if you take one for the home team, they're going to pick you up and keep you moving along.

    ... The second big point--we've already talked about attribute substitution. High stakes partisans want to simplify an otherwise intolerably complicated world. They use attribute substitution a lot. They take hard questions and replace them with easy ones and they act as if the answers to the easy ones are answers to the hard ones.

    ... The third thing we talked a bit about yesterday is rhetorical obfuscation as an essential survival strategy if you're a political pundit. To preserve their self and public images in an environment that throws up a lot of surprises, which, of course, the political world does, high stakes partisans have to learn to master an arcane art: the art of appearing to go out on a predictive limb without actually doing it, of appearing to be making a forecast without making a forecast.

    They say decisive-sounding things about Eurozone collapse or this or that, but there are so many "may's" and "possibly's" and "could's" and so forth that turning it into a probability estimate that can be scored for accuracy is virtually impossible. A, they can't keep score of themselves. B, there is no way to tell ex post which side gets closer to the truth because each side has rhetorically positioned itself in a way that allows it to explain what happened ex post.

    ... Attribute substitution, point four, is not just going on among the debaters, it's going on in the audience as well. Audiences are remarkably forgiving of all these epistemological sins that debaters are committing. There is a tendency to take partisan claims more or less at face value as long as the partisans belong to their community of co-believers.

Addendum: Interview with Phil Tetlock on the Rationally Speaking podcast.

Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Wed Sep 30 11:50:41 EDT 2015

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently:

  • America's Real Criminal Element: Lead

    New research finds Pb is the hidden villain behind violent crime, lower IQs, and even the ADHD epidemic. And fixing the problem is a lot cheaper than doing nothing.

    Gasoline lead may explain as much as 90 percent of the rise and fall of violent crime over the past half century.
    In states where consumption of leaded gasoline declined slowly, crime declined slowly. Where it declined quickly, crime declined quickly.
    When differences of atmospheric lead density between big and small cities largely went away, so did the difference in murder rates.

  • The Correlation Between Arts and Crafts and a Nobel Prize

    The average scientist is not statistically more likely than a member of the general public to have an artistic or crafty hobby. But members of the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society -- elite societies of scientists, membership in which is based on professional accomplishments and discoveries -- are 1.7 and 1.9 times more likely to have an artistic or crafty hobby than the average scientist is. And Nobel prize winning scientists are 2.85 times more likely than the average scientist to have an artistic or crafty hobby.

  • Getting it Wrong: 'Everyone' Suffers An Incorrect or Late Diagnosis

    According to the report:

    1. At least 5 percent of U.S. adults who seek outpatient care each year experience a diagnostic error.
    2. Postmortem exams suggest diagnostic errors contribute to 10 percent of patient deaths.
    3. Medical records suggest diagnostic errors account for 6 to 17 percent of adverse events in hospitals.

  • Neural network chess computer abandons brute force for selective, 'human' approach

    A chess computer has taught itself the game and advanced to 'international master'-level in only three days by adopting a more 'human' approach. Mathew Lai, an MsC student at Imperial College London, devised a neural-network-based chess computer dubbed Giraffe -- the first of its kind to abandon the 'brute force' approach to competing with human opponents in favour of a branch-based approach whereby the AI stops to evaluate which of the calculated move branches that it has already made are most likely to lead to victory.
    The lag between depth-based 'move-crunching' and neural-based branch evaluation has not completely closed, and Giraffe cannot perform yet at either the same level or with the same latency as traditional depth-based chess engines.

  • How Biohackers are Fighting a Two-front War on Antibiotic Resistance

    Enter CRISPR, or clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. CRISPRs are part of an immune system for bacteria -- a way for populations of bugs to share immunity to bacteria-specific viruses, called phages.
    CRISPR is a really powerful tool for gene editing, and one that has applications for overcoming antibiotic resistance. In an ironic twist, researchers are packing CRISPR/Cas systems into phages and using them to attack bacteria. The CRISPR system is programmed to search for and destroy the sequences that code for antibiotic resistance, like the beta-lactamase protein that confers penicillin resistance. The bacteria are then vulnerable to antibiotics they had previously been able to stand up to.

  • Restoring Henry

    Niall Ferguson, Kissinger's authorized biographer, begins the arduous task of rolling his subject's fallen reputation back up the hill.

    Negative review of authorized biography of Henry Kissinger.

  • The Rent Crisis Is About to Get a Lot Worse

    Millions of households could join the ranks of those spending more than half their income on rent, Harvard study warns

  • What Is College Worth?

    What's the real value of higher education?

    These types of studies, and there are lots of them, usually find that the financial benefits of getting a college degree are much larger than the financial costs. But Cappelli points out that for parents and students the average figures may not mean much, because they disguise enormous differences in outcomes from school to school. He cites a survey, carried out by PayScale for Businessweek in 2012, that showed that students who attend M.I.T., Caltech, and Harvey Mudd College enjoy an annual return of more than ten per cent on their "investment." But the survey also found almost two hundred colleges where students, on average, never fully recouped the costs of their education. "The big news about the payoff from college should be the incredible variation in it across colleges," Cappelli writes. "Looking at the actual return on the costs of attending college, careful analyses suggest that the payoff from many college programs--as much as one in four--is actually negative. Incredibly, the schools seem to add nothing to the market value of the students."

  • Men with unaggressive prostate tumors 'unlikely to develop, die from prostate cancer'

    With careful monitoring by a urologist, a man with relatively unaggressive prostate cancer is unlikely to develop metastatic prostate cancer or die from the disease. This is according to a new study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

  • Surprising benefits of sexually transmitted infections

    Some microbes passed on during sex could actually be good for us, are most of us missing out?

    Microbes that cause sexual diseases need to ensure they can hop from human to human
    A six-study review found that it (GB virus C) was associated with a 59% reduction in the mortality rate of HIV patients. Scientists think GBV-C does this by reducing HIV's ability to compromise our immune system cells. It may also stimulate other parts of the immune system to actively fight the infection.

  • Food Goes 'GMO Free' With Same Ingredients

    As consumer concern grows over genetically modified products, more produce purveyors are paying to use such labels

    While the U.S. government and most major science groups say evidence shows that GMOs are safe, consumer concern has grown so strong that some vendors of products such as blueberries and lettuce are paying for non-GMO labeling even though their products aren't among the small number of crops that are genetically modified in the U.S.

  • Ice cream that does not melt 'could soon hit the shelves'

    Scientists have discovered a protein which binds the components of ice cream together and stops it melting so fast.

    The new ingredient should create firmer, longer lasting ice cream that will keep it frozen for much longer in hot weather

  • Can't sleep? Try getting less

    By reducing your "sleep window", you're raising the stakes, giving your powers of sleep a real challenge, which brings out the best in them'

    Also see, Sleep Restriction Therapy (SRT).

Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Thu Sep 17 13:51:34 EDT 2015

Changing New York City

  • How the Big Schlep Is Changing the Way New Yorkers Live

    But as the city transformed into an exceedingly safe and exceedingly expensive place to live over the past two decades, it's not only the crime and the pervasive decay that have fallen away, but the close proximity, creating a social commute that echoes and exacerbates a work commute that, at more than six hours a week, is the longest in the nation
    Manhattan, once the center of the world, is not even the center of the city anymore. Or, at least, it's not the only center.

  • What Jane Jacobs Got Wrong About Cities

    The peerless urban theorist misunderstood the suburbs and failed to see how gentrification would make urban neighborhoods unaffordable to all but the rich.

    "The most successful urban neighborhoods have attracted not the blue-collar families that she celebrated, but the rich and the young. The urban vitality that she espoused--and correctly saw as a barometer of healthy city life--has found new expressions in planned commercial and residential developments whose scale rivals that of the urban renewal of which she was so critical. These developments are the work of real estate entrepreneurs, who were absent from the city described but loom large today, having long ago replaced planners and our chief urban strategists."
    Cities, as Jacobs hoped, have indeed experienced a renaissance, but not in the form she preferred. To be sure, this revival is a hell of lot better than the urban dystopia that developed in the years after Jacobs's Death and Life of Great American Cities first appeared. But it's time to recognize that we are not seeing a renaissance of the kind of middle-class urbanity that she loved and championed. That city has passed into myth, and, unless society changes in very radical ways, it is never going to come back.

  • NYC landlords face new limits buying out tenants

    New York Landlords hoping to pay tenants to move out of the city's 1.3 million rent-regulated apartments will face new limitations on extending offers under measures signed Thursday to rein in a practice that has come under scrutiny in a roaring real-estate market.
    Under state laws, vacant rent-stabilized apartments often can be renovated, deregulated and re-rented at triple the price or more -- $5,200 a month instead of $1,700 for a Manhattan two-bedroom, for example. Citywide, about 266,000 apartments have been deregulated since 1994.

  • Real New Yorkers Can Say Goodbye to All That

    We did leave our hometown because of all these aspirational New Yorkers. But we didn't leave to get away from these people, exactly. We left because those of us who grew up there were less willing to bear any burden, pay any price, to stay. The dreamers simply outbid us for our New York, and in the process, they created a city we no longer loved quite so much. This is apt to make such musings hard reading for us.

Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments