Thu Aug 31 18:06:04 EDT 2017

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently.

  • The Curse of Middle-Aged Capitalism for Trump, Rest of Us

    A similar story applies to corporate investment in buildings and machinery (computers, vehicles). From 1975 to 2015, this capital investment has dropped from 8% of corporate assets to 4%. Interestingly, this decline in investment was mostly offset by increases in corporate research and development (R&D) -- reflecting the need to develop new digital products and programs, say Kahle and Stulz. But the R&D spending was heavily skewed toward bigger firms. Half of publicly traded firms showed no R&D.
    ...
    But what if the weaknesses go deeper? For example: It's hard to argue that cuts in corporate taxes will accelerate economic growth if many companies are already suffering losses -- and don't benefit from tax cuts. Similarly, large, very profitable firms, with huge piles of cash but few appealing investment projects, won't suddenly find new projects if their taxes are cut.

  • How your mind protects you against hallucinations

    These examples suggest hallucinations arise when the brain gives more weight to its expectations and beliefs about the world than to the sensory evidence it receives, says study author and Yale psychiatrist Philip Corlett.
    ...
    The team hypothesized that people who hear voices would be more likely to "believe" in auditory hallucinations. That's precisely what they found: Both the schizophrenics and self-described psychics were nearly five times more likely to say they heard the nonexistent tone than healthy controls. They were also about 28% more confident that they had heard the tone when none was there, the researchers report today in Science.

  • How To Know You're In a Mass Hysteria Bubble

    Scott Adams (Dilbert)

    The most visible Mass Hysteria of the moment involves the idea that the United States intentionally elected a racist President. If that statement just triggered you, it might mean you are in the Mass Hysteria bubble. The cool part is that you can't fact-check my claim you are hallucinating if you are actually hallucinating. But you can read my description of the signs of mass hysteria and see if you check off the boxes.

    If you're in the mass hysteria, recognizing you have all the symptoms of hysteria won't help you be aware you are in it. That's not how hallucinations work. Instead, your hallucination will automatically rewrite itself to expel any new data that conflicts with its illusions.
    ...
    On November 8th of 2016, half the country learned that everything they believed to be both true and obvious turned out to be wrong. The people who thought Trump had no chance of winning were under the impression they were smart people who understood their country, and politics, and how things work in general. When Trump won, they learned they were wrong. They were so very wrong that they reflexively (because this is how all brains work) rewrote the scripts they were seeing in their minds until it all made sense again. The wrong-about-everything crowd decided that the only way their world made sense, with their egos intact, is that either the Russians helped Trump win or there are far more racists in the country than they imagined, and he is their king. Those were the seeds of the two mass hysterias we witness today.

  • How to Stop Gentrification

    Individuals moving to newly-hip neighborhoods admit they are part of the problem. What can they do?

    Drawing on earlier urban scholars, Moskowitz breaks the process down into four basic steps. First, individuals seeking cheap rents begin moving to a disinvested neighborhood, sometimes forming their own sub-communities: artists, radicals, and so on. Before long, more middle-class people follow, and real-estate interests catch on. Soon enough, the new middle-class residents take their place in the neighborhood"s institutions and begin reshaping power dynamics, attracting more amenities (and, notably, police), as well as bigger-money developers. By the time "managerial-class professionals" find their way to the neighborhood, the original gentrifiers can no longer afford it and get pushed out, starting the process over again in another neighborhood.

  • How "Despacito" became the biggest song of 2017

    An anatomy of what made "Despacito" the most popular song of the year.

    Also related How Did Pop Music Get So Slow.

  • Prediction Markets & Crowdsourced Forecasting

    DOES (HUMAN + MACHINE) x GEOPOLITICAL FORECASTING = HYPERACCURACY? (Philip Tetlock)

    The Hybrid Forecasting Competition (HFC) is a government-sponsored research program designed to test the limits of geopolitical forecasting. By combining the ingenuity of human analysts with cutting edge machine systems (including statistical models and algorithms), HFC will develop novel capabilities to help the U.S. Intelligence Community improve their forecasts in an increasingly uncertain world.

  • An Introduction to Emergent Order in Our Daily Lives

    Russ Roberts

    There is order sprinkled liberally throughout the chaotic nature of nature. The planets orbit the sun. Birds of a feather flock together. Fish make schools of fish. Ants create colonies. No ant is in charge of the ant colony, yet an order emerges from the actions of the individual ants that no one of them intends. The colony and the bee hive seems to have a mind of their own that can respond to challenges and change, independent of any of its members.
    ...
    We humans create emergent order as well--order that is the product of human action but not human design. It looks like someone is in charge yet no one and no group intends these outcomes we observe and experience. These parts of our lives are incredibly orderly and reliable. They look as if someone or a group of people have convened to take action together. It looks like someone is steering the system to achieve certain goals. But no single human being is in charge or intending what actually occurs.

  • What Meditation Can Do for Us, and What It Can't

    Examining the science and supernaturalism of Buddhism.

    Wright sets out to provide an unabashedly American answer to all these questions. He thinks that Buddhism is true in the immediate sense that it is helpful and therapeutic, and, by offering insights into our habitual thoughts and cravings, shows us how to fix them. Being Buddhist-that is, simply practicing Vipassana, or "insight" meditation-will make you feel better about being alive, he believes, and he shows how you can and why it does.
    ...
    What Wright correctly sees as the heart of meditation practice-the draining away of the stories we tell compulsively about each moment in favor of simply having the moment-is antithetical to the kind of evidentiary argument he admires. Science is competitive storytelling. If a Buddhist Newton had been sitting under that tree, he would have seen the apple falling and, reaching for Enlightenment, experienced each moment of its descent as a thing pure in itself. Only a restless Western Newton would say, "Now, what story can tell us best what connects those apple-moments from branch to ground?
    ...
    Science is putting names on things and telling stories about them, the very habits that Buddhists urge us to transcend.


Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Thu Aug 17 12:57:17 EDT 2017

Health Matters

Some links about health care matters.

  • A radical new hypothesis in medicine: give patients drugs they know don't work

    Why the placebo effect is weirder and potentially more useful than we imagined.

    Placebos only affect what the brain can modulate. It's not going to shrink a tumor. It's not going to deal with malaria. But it will deal with pain, fatigue, and nausea. Or will deal with feeling malaise. But it's not going to deal with killing bacteria. That doesn't happen on the level of the brain.
    ...
    The first open-label study we did was in irritable bowel syndrome. People on no treatment got about 30 percent better. And people who were given an open-label placebo got 60 percent improvement in the adequate relief of their irritable bowel syndrome.

  • Please Calm Down: Coconut Oil Is Fine

    In response to articles like: Coconut oil 'as unhealthy as beef fat and butter'

    The studies don't link eating more coconut oil to heart disease-they link it to a changing cholesterol metric. A metric that, if you look for it, has lots of conflicting data as to how it makes things worse and how badly (may I point you to Gary Taubes' Good Calories, Bad Calories).
    So, coconut oil is fine. It's not fantastic. It's not horrible. It's just a source of saturated fat probably not as bad as butter. Which we also don't think is that bad.

  • Chiropractors are bullshit

    You shouldn't trust them with your spine or any other part of your body.

    Chiropractic care, I'm sorry to say, is little more than the buffoonery of a 19th-century lunatic who derived most of his medical theory from séances. It has not evolved much since its creation. Chiropractic beliefs are dangerously far removed from mainstream medicine, and the vocation's practices have been linked to strokes, herniated discs, and even death. Chiropractors can't replace your doctor, and I'm amazed that they're still even allowed to practice. You shouldn't trust them with your spine or any other part of your body, and here's why.
    ...
    Though some chiropractors are now making an effort to introduce evidence-based practices into their treatment, chiropractic as a whole hasn't evolved like other areas of medicine -- with hypotheses, experimentation, and peer review. Instead, it was birthed by a strange combination of hocus pocus, guesswork, and strongly held religious beliefs. I'm not being hyperbolic when I cite hocus pocus. Palmer held séances to contact a dead physician named Jim Atkinson, and said that those séances helped him develop chiropractic.

    Also see the skeptics guide to everything chiropractic.

  • Why I Won't Get a PSA Test for Prostate Cancer

    Physicians are still recommending the blood test for prostate cancer even though it harms far more men than it helps.

    The problem is that inflammation and other problems unrelated to cancer can also elevate PSA levels. And when the PSA test correctly detects cancer, it is often so slow-growing that it would never have caused death or even impairment of health. Detection of these non-deadly cancers is called overdiagnosis.
    ...
    Just to be clear: you are 240-120 times more likely to misdiagnosed as a result of a positive PSA test and 80-40 times more likely to get unnecessary surgery or radiation than you are to have your life saved.


Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Mon Jul 31 16:04:42 EDT 2017

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently.

  • Economics: The new astrology

    By fetishising mathematical models, economists turned economics into a highly paid pseudoscience

    Every economist I interviewed agreed that conflicts of interest were highly problematic for the scientific integrity of their field - but only tenured ones were willing to go on the record. 'In economics and finance, if I'm trying to decide whether I'm going to write something favourable or unfavourable to bankers, well, if it's favourable that might get me a dinner in Manhattan with movers and shakers,' Pfleiderer said to me. "I've written articles that wouldn't curry favour with bankers but I did that when I had tenure."
    ...
    Economists who rationalise their discipline's value can be convincing, especially with prestige and mathiness on their side. But there's no reason to keep believing them. The pejorative verb 'rationalise' itself warns of mathiness, reminding us that we often deceive each other by making prior convictions, biases and ideological positions look 'rational', a word that confuses truth with mathematical reasoning. To be rational is, simply, to think in ratios, like the ratios that govern the geometry of the stars. Yet when mathematical theory is the ultimate arbiter of truth, it becomes difficult to see the difference between science and pseudoscience. The result is people like the judge in Evangeline Adams's trial, or the Son of Heaven in ancient China, who trust the mathematical exactitude of theories without considering their performance - that is, who confuse math with science, rationality with reality.

  • No, Seattle's $15 Minimum Wage Is Not Hurting Workers

    Contrary to what one unrepresentative study found, the city's workers are actually benefiting from the wage hike.

    There are, of course, naysayers. A recent University of Washington study argued that Seattle's wage hike would actually hurt workers overall because an hourly increase would be offset by a reduction of workers' hours and decreased employment. But IRLE researchers and others challenged that study as excessively limited in scope, based on an unrepresentative sample of workers. The Berkeley researchers contend that their analysis focuses on material impacts in a more representative sector.

    Probably an example of how one's politics can influence your conclusions.

  • The weird power of the placebo effect, explained

    Belief is the oldest medicine known to man.

      The family of placebo effects ranges from the common sense to some head scratchers.

    1. Regression to the mean
      When people first go to a doctor or start on a clinical trial, their symptoms might be particularly bad (why else would they have sought treatment?). But in the natural course of an illness, symptoms may get better all on their own. In depression clinical studies, for instance, researchers find around one-third of patients get better without drugs or placebo.
    2. Confirmation bias
      A patient may hope to get better when they're in treatment, so they will change their focus. They'll pay closer attention to signs that they're getting better and ignore signs that they're getting worse.
    3. Expectations and learning
      ... So awareness that you're being given something that's supposed to relieve pain seems to impact perception of it working.
      ... The research also suggests that fake surgeries - where doctors make some incisions but don't actually change anything - are an even stronger placebo than pills.
      ... The research also suggests that fake surgeries - where doctors make some incisions but don't actually change anything - are an even stronger placebo than pills.
      ... There is such thing as the nocebo effect: where negative expectations make people feel worse.
    4. Pharmacological conditioning
      For instance, Colloca has found that individual neurons in the brains of patients with Parkinson's disease will still respond to placebos as though they are actual anti-Parkinson's drugs after such conditioning has taken place.
    5. Social learning
      When study participants see another patient get relief from a placebo treatment they have a greater placebo response.
    6. A human connection
      ... The warm, friendly acupuncturist was able to produce better relief of symptoms.
      ... This may be the least-understood component of placebo: It's not just about pills. It's about the environment a pill is taken in. It's about the person who gave it to you - and the rituals and encounters associated with them.
    Also see Surgery Is One Hell Of A Placebo about sham surgery.
  • The Myth of Drug Expiration Dates

    Hospitals and pharmacies are required to toss expired drugs, no matter how expensive or vital. Meanwhile the FDA has long known that many remain safe and potent for years longer.

    The idea that drugs expire on specified dates goes back at least a half-century, when the FDA began requiring manufacturers to add this information to the label. The time limits allow the agency to ensure medications work safely and effectively for patients. To determine a new drug's shelf life, its maker zaps it with intense heat and soaks it with moisture to see how it degrades under stress. It also checks how it breaks down over time. The drug company then proposes an expiration date to the FDA, which reviews the data to ensure it supports the date and approves it. Despite the difference in drugs' makeup, most "expire" after two or three years.
    ...
    Pharmacists and researchers say there is no economic "win" for drug companies to investigate further. They ring up more sales when medications are tossed as "expired" by hospitals, retail pharmacies and consumers despite retaining their safety and effectiveness.
    ...
    A 2006 study of 122 drugs tested by the program showed that two-thirds of the expired medications were stable every time a lot was tested. Each of them had their expiration dates extended, on average, by more than four years, according to research published in the Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences.

  • High US health care spending is quite well explained by its high material standard of living

    When properly analyzed with better data and closer attention to detail, it becomes quite clear that US healthcare spending is not astronomically high for a country of its wealth.

  • Fareed Zakaria made a scary prediction about democracy in 1997 - and it's coming true

    Democracy is rising, but not the good kind.

    Zakaria's piece made an important distinction between democracy and liberalism, constructs that are often conflated. Democracy is a process for choosing leaders; it's about popular participation. To say that a state is democratic is to say little about how it is actually governed.

  • The more things change

    What kinds of sex one has varies enormously over time, as does with what kinds of and how many people. We can see this over big periods of history and within living memory in our own culture.


Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Thu Jul 13 13:34:31 EDT 2017

Politics / Democracy

Some links about politics and democracy in the United States.

  • The problem with democracy is voters

    Democracy for Realist by Christopher H. Achen & Larry M. Bartels
    Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government
    Why almost everything you think about democracy is wrong.

    Even voters who pay close attention to politics are prone - in fact, more prone - to biased or blinkered decision-making. The reason is simple: Most people make political decisions on the basis of social identities and partisan loyalties, not an honest examination of reality.
    ...
    So much of politics, not surprisingly, turns out to be about expressive behavior rather than instrumental behavior - in other words, people making decisions based on momentary feeling and not on some sound understanding of how those decisions will improve or hurt their life.
    ...
    I think it's hard to see how the public as a whole would steer the country in any particular direction. Usually when we think about public input, we think about public input in response to particular kinds of choices that have been framed by political elites of one kind or the other, whether they're party leaders or elected officials.
    ...
    History clearly demonstrates that democracies need parties to organize and simplify the political world. But parties don't make the fundamental problems of democratic control disappear; they just submerge them more or less successfully. When professional politicians are reasonably enlightened and skillful and the rules and political culture let them do their job, democracy will usually work pretty well. When not, not.
    ...
    If you think about democracy in the terms we prefer, you might say the biggest limitation at the moment is that we don't know how to incorporate the role of political elites in a constructive way into the governing process or to somehow make it possible to ensure that they're working on behalf of the interests of ordinary people.
    ...
    It seems clear to us that a lot of the actual ways in which people of ordinary education or ordinary means or just not much power, the ways in which they are disadvantaged are often occurring at the level of policymaking rather than at the level of elections themselves. The financial sector, for instance, is having a lot of policy success in Washington, in ways that ordinary people, if they really understood what was happening, would not approve. But they don't follow it closely enough, they don't understand, and the policy process is tilted toward moneyed interests that ordinary people have no chance.

  • I was a lobbyist for more than 6 years. I quit.

    My conscience could't take it anymore. "The hypocrisy from both sides is staggering."

    Today, most lobbyists are engaged in a system of bribery but it's the legal kind, the kind that runs rampant in the corridors of Washington. It's a system of sycophantic elected leaders expecting a campaign cash flow, and in return, industry, interest groups, and big labor are rewarded with what they want: legislation and rules that favor their constituencies.
    ...
    Know this: Lobbyists are not bad people. They're simply doing their jobs, and those jobs are not only legal but protected by the First Amendment. The political left loves to shit all over lobbyists, but they dial for dollars just like their Republican brethren. And as for the political right? Well, at least they make no bones about paying to play. It's "free speech by God. The Supreme Court makes it so!"

  • Alan Dershowitz pulverizes liberal anti-Trump Russia theories

    But Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, a liberal who voted for Hillary Clinton, believes Mueller's appointment will help Trump - not bring his downfall like so many Democrats want.

  • The Bullshitter-in-Chief

    Donald Trump's disregard for the truth is something more sinister than ordinary lying.

    As the Princeton University philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt put it in a famous essay, to lie presumes a kind of awareness of and interest in the truth - and the goal is to convince the audience that the false thing you are saying is in fact true. Trump, more often than not, isn't interested in convincing anyone of anything. He's a bullshitter who simply doesn't care.
    ...
    When Trump says something like he's just learned that Barack Obama ordered his phones wiretapped, he's not really trying to persuade people that this is true. It's a test to see who around him will debase themselves to repeat it blindly. There's no greater demonstration of devotion.


Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Fri Jun 30 11:29:56 EDT 2017

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently.

  • Is Demography Destiny For US GDP Growth?

    The future is still uncertain, of course. But to the extent that demography dictates economic growth, the case appears weak for predicting a significant acceleration in the macro trend. That doesn't preclude an encouraging pop in growth for a quarter or two every so often. But assuming that output will rise on a sustainable basis for the longer run is probably assuming too much.

  • Corporations in the Age of Inequality

    Inequality isn't just about individuals - it's risen between companies, too.

    In other words, the increasing inequality we've seen for individuals is mirrored by increasing inequality between firms. But the wage gap is not increasing as much inside firms, our research shows. This may tend to make inequality less visible, because people do not see it rising in their own workplace.
    ...
    What is clear is that over the past 35 years, firms have divided between winners and losers, and between those that rely heavily on knowledge workers and those that don't. Employees inside winning companies enjoy rising incomes and interesting cognitive challenges. Workers outside this charmed circle experience something quite different. For example, contract janitors no longer receive the benefits or pay premium tied to a job at a big company. Their wages have been squeezed as their employers routinely bid to retain outsourcing contracts, a process ensuring that labor costs remain low or go ever lower. Their earnings have also come under pressure as the pool of less-skilled job seekers has expanded, due to automation, trade, and the Great Recession. In the process, work has begun to mirror neighborhoods - sharply segregated along economic and educational lines.

  • An Index-Fund Evangelist Is Straying From His Gospel

    Burton Malkiel, 84, who long endorsed passive investing, has had a change of heart.

    Wealthfront stressed that it was not abandoning the essence of Mr. Malkiel's long-held belief in passive investing, and it calls its new approach PassivePlus. "Burt Malkiel is still the high priest of passive investing," said Jakub Jurek, vice president for research at Wealthfront. "To be absolutely clear, we're not stock pickers. There are decades of research on active investors, which show they underperform." At the same time, he said, "there are small adjustments you can make to improve after-tax returns."

    In addition to value and momentum factors, Wealthfront's approach embraces stocks with high dividend yields, low market beta and low volatility, all factors that "have proven robust across long time periods, geographies and asset classes," Mr. Jurek said. (Wealthfront excluded another widely cited factor, small market capitalization, because its investment universe is limited to large-cap issues.)

  • Amazon's New Customer

    This is the key to understanding the purchase of Whole Foods: from the outside it may seem that Amazon is buying a retailer. The truth, though, is that Amazon is buying a customer - the first-and-best customer that will instantly bring its grocery efforts to scale.

    Today, all of the logistics that go into a Whole Foods store are for the purpose of stocking physical shelves: the entire operation is integrated. What I expect Amazon to do over the next few years is transform the Whole Foods supply chain into a service architecture based on primitives: meat, fruit, vegetables, baked goods, non-perishables (Whole Foods' outsized reliance on store brands is something that I'm sure was very attractive to Amazon). What will make this massive investment worth it, though, is that there will be a guaranteed customer: Whole Foods Markets.

    In the long run, physical grocery stores will be only one of Amazon Grocery Services' customers: obviously a home delivery service will be another, and it will be far more efficient than a company like Instacart trying to layer on top of Whole Foods' current integrated model.

    I suspect Amazon's ambitions stretch further, though: Amazon Grocery Services will be well-placed to start supplying restaurants too, gaining Amazon access to another big cut of economic activity. It is the AWS model, which is to say it is the Amazon model, but like AWS, the key to profitability is having a first-and-best customer able to utilize the massive investment necessary to build the service out in the first place.

  • I Fought For a Better Israel Than This

    Fifty years ago I was a soldier during the Six-Day War. We saved our nation, but the occupation has cost us dearly in the long run.

    In 1967, I was proud to be an Israeli. That is still the case, but a lot more complicated. I am not as at peace with Israel today as I was then and I fear for the future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic country, something that never even occurred to me at the time. In 1967, as a young soldier, I felt like I helped shape the future of my adopted country. I don't feel that way now. I feel unable to change its course and once again I wonder what kind of a future our children and grandchildren will have here. Israel has achieved much over the years, but the occupation has to stop before it conquers us all.

  • The Art and Science of Comedic Timing

    People who make their living by making people laugh have a much more nuanced appreciation of comic timing - as an art, rather than a science. Greg Dean, a Los Angeles comedian who has been performing and teaching stand-up for 40 years, said that when people talk about a comedian having great timing, they really mean that he or she has found a way to both lead and respond to the energy of the audience, like a drummer might with a dancer.


Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Thu Jun 15 16:17:36 EDT 2017

Life on Earth

Some things to think about concerning life on earth and climate change.

  • The Oxygenation Catastrophe

    Approximately 2.3 billion years ago, Earth could have been easily mistaken for a hostile alien planet. Methane spewed into the atmosphere by constant volcanic activity, and fatal UV radiation bombarded the surface without the protection of an ozone layer. The primordial seas were blood red, a hue caused by the massive amounts of suspended iron in the water. It is beneath these red waves in which almost all life on the planet survived, most of which would require a microscope to view. Anaerobic single celled organisms were the dominant life form on earth at the time; they lived in the hostile chemical make up of the primordial sea without the need of oxygen. However just one of these single celled organisms may have caused the greatest extinction event on planet Earth: the Cyanobacteria.

    What was formerly known as blue-green algae, the Cyanobacteria are actually bacteria that have the unique ability of photosynthesis. This single-celled organism had emerged only a few hundred millions years before, at a time where all other organisms relied on methods of anaerobic respiration. By creating its own energy from the sun, this bacterium was able to generate up to 16 times more energy than its counterparts, which allowed it to outcompete and explode in reproduction. This seemingly innocent organism would spell doom for most of life on the planet, as photosynthesis produced free oxygen molecules as a byproduct.
    ...
    In a relatively short amount of time, Earth went from having very little oxygen to what may be the highest levels of atmospheric oxygen it has ever had. This event had wiped out most of life on the planet to which the oxygen was poisonous. Some of these anaerobic organisms were though to have survived by burrowing into the earth where oxygen levels were survivable. What may have the biggest change is that when oxygen accumulated in the methane rich atmosphere, the concentration of this greenhouse gas dwindled, causing temperature levels to drop. They dropped so low in fact, that this oxygen event is thought to have triggered the Huronian glaciation, the longest snowball Earth period.

  • Chemists may be zeroing in on chemical reactions that sparked the first life

    Chemical reactions on early Earth could have created all four building blocks of RNA molecules, triggering the beginning of life.

    Now, chemists have identified simple reactions that, using the raw materials on early Earth, can synthesize close cousins of all four building blocks. The resemblance isn't perfect, but it suggests scientists may be closing in on a plausible scenario for how life on Earth began.

  • Why Uncertainty About Climate Change Is What Scares Me Most

    If projections about the future of climate change are prone to considerable potential error, we must allow for that error to go in both directions. There is nothing necessarily reassuring about climate change uncertainty; those error bars encompass a space in which our worst nightmares find refuge.

    The moment we concede the uncertainty about climate change projections - magnitude, pace, impact - that Mr. Stephens asks of us, we are obligated to allow for the entire expanse of that potential error. That's what scares me most.


Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Wed May 31 11:51:29 EDT 2017

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently.

  • Researchers have ditched the autism-vaccine hypothesis. Here's what they think actually causes it.

    Genes and the microbiome are some of the most promising leads.

    Today, about one in 68 US children has autism -- a rate that's remained unchanged since at least 1990, though there's been a steady increase in awareness and diagnosis.
    ...
    But "of all the causes of autism, the thing we know with the greatest certainty is that it's a very genetic disorder," said UCSF geneticist and autism researcher Stephan Sanders. "If you look at a child with autism, then look at their siblings, you'll find the rate of autism is 10 times higher in those siblings than in the general population. This has been looked at in populations of millions."
    ...
    Overall, the evidence for these prenatal exposures is stronger than the evidence for the range of postnatal causes that may trigger autism, said Amaral.

  • Why You're Biased About Being Biased

    Such biases can still affect you even if you know all about them because they operate unconsciously. We judge whether we have a bias by examining our thoughts, and because we believe our thoughts are rational, we often think we're not biased when we are. Psychologists call this contradiction the "bias blind spot." Although we're quick to see biases in others, we have more trouble noticing them in ourselves.

    And the more we convince ourselves that we don't have certain biases, the more likely we are to exhibit them. If we believe we're good people, for example, we may stop trying to be better and may be more likely to act indecently. Similarly, if we think we're smart, we might skip studying for a test and give ignorant answers. In general, if we believe we're unbiased, we're giving ourselves permission to be biased.

  • Why We Believe -- Long After We Shouldn't

    Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson in Skeptical Inquirer

    That's motivated cognition; people are emotionally motivated to reject findings that threaten their core beliefs or worldview.
    ...
    The key motivational mechanism that underlies the reluctance to change our minds, to admit mistakes, and to be unwilling to accept unwelcome scientific findings is cognitive dissonance -- the discomfort we feel when two cognitions, or cognition and behavior, contradict each other.
    ...
    Dissonance theory comprises three cognitive biases in particular:

    1. The bias that we, personally, don't have any biases-the belief that we perceive objects and events clearly, as they really are. Any opinion I hold must be reasonable; if it weren't, I wouldn't hold it.
    2. The bias that we are better, kinder, smarter, more moral, and nicer than average.
    3. The confirmation bias, the fact that we notice and remember information that confirms what we believe and ignore, forget,

  • How One Little Cable Company Exposed Telecom's Achilles' Heel

    Forget net neutrality--the real fight is over controlling price-gouging monopolies.

    Here's the reality: The details of the net neutrality rules adopted by the FCC in February 2015 were not important to AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Spectrum, or CenturyLink. What was important was the idea that any part of the government might have enforceable oversight over their data transmission services or charges. That's what they can't stand; that's what they would do anything to avoid. And that's what they are working to undo: the FCC's classification of them as "common carriers" under "Title II" of the Telecommunications Act.

  • The Inadequacies of the Invincible

    On the Failure of Stoic Ethics

    The rise of Stoicism is a sign of a civilization in decline. There is something decadent about a society trying to escape its own loss through a sour grapes philosophy. Let us face reality. The answer isn't in the flick of the mind. We could come together with our friends- decide what we require of each other - and turn back the tide of decline.

    This doesn't mean we shouldn't try to master our volatility when the chips are down or that powerful reactions to false beliefs are healthy. Our emotions can be off, ill-fitting to a situation. But perhaps all we need is a good night's rest, less junk food, some time with friends, and good exercise. All of these help us gain emotional stability better than the sphincter squeezing contortions of Stoic impulse control.

  • The Reactionary Temptation

    An open-minded inquiry into the close-minded ideology that is the most dominant political force of our time - and can no longer be ignored. By Andrew Sullivan

    Reactionism is not the same thing as conservatism. It's far more potent a brew. Reactionary thought begins, usually, with acute despair at the present moment and a memory of a previous golden age. It then posits a moment in the past when everything went to hell and proposes to turn things back to what they once were. It is not simply a conservative preference for things as they are, with a few nudges back, but a passionate loathing of the status quo and a desire to return to the past in one emotionally cathartic revolt. If conservatives are pessimistic, reactionaries are apocalyptic. If conservatives value elites, reactionaries seethe with contempt for them. If conservatives believe in institutions, reactionaries want to blow them up. If conservatives tend to resist too radical a change, reactionaries want a revolution. Though it took some time to reveal itself, today's Republican Party - from Newt Gingrich's Republican Revolution to today's Age of Trump - is not a conservative party. It is a reactionary party that is now at the peak of its political power.


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Thu May 18 20:08:46 EDT 2017

Health Care Matters

Some interesting links related to health care in the U.S.

  • Mayo Clinic researchers demonstrate value of second opinions

    Many patients come to Mayo Clinic for a second opinion or diagnosis confirmation before treatment for a complex condition. In a new study, Mayo Clinic reports that as many as 88 percent of those patients go home with a new or refined diagnosis -- changing their care plan and potentially their lives. Conversely, only 12 percent receive confirmation that the original diagnosis was complete and correct.

  • The two major sources of our healthcare problem

    The first original sin appeared in the 1940s, when the government agreed to allow companies to deduct the cost of health insurance, but neglected to allow individuals to do the same. (I've discussed this in a number of posts over the years.) This made health insurance provided by employers much cheaper than health insurance purchased by individuals. Not only that, but it created a strong incentive for employers to offer health insurance which covered a whole lot of things; and why not, if the costs were uniquely deductible by companies?
    ...
    The second original sin, Cochrane argues, is that "Instead of straightforwardly raising taxes in a non-distortionary way (a VAT, say), and providing charity care or subsidies -- on budget, please, where we can see it -- our political system prefers to fund things by forcing cross subsidies. Medicare and medicaid don't pay what the service costs, because we don't want to admit just how expensive that service is. So, large hospitals make up the difference by overcharging you and me instead."

  • US healthcare: most people don't know what they're talking about

    In fact in the US case it's not even obesity, or indeed their greater pre-existing disease burden, that is doing most of the work in dragging their life expectancy down; it's accidental and violent deaths. It is tragic that the US is so dangerous, but it's not the fault of the healthcare system; indeed, it's an extra burden that US healthcare spending must bear. Just simply normalising for violent and accidental death puts the USA right to the top of the life expectancy rankings.
    ...
    Now this is not to say the US system works well. The fact that the US spends vastly more than everyone else, and only does a bit better, if that, makes the system pretty unimpressive. But it's important to understand why. The UK really does have "death panels" that refuse treatments because they're extremely costly relative to their tiny impact. The USA has a system where most people can buy--are even subsidised through the tax system to buy--insurance that is as extensive as they like, paying for ever more expensive and marginally beneficial therapies. Eventually you're spending a fifth of your GDP on it.

  • The secret monopoly behind America's outrageous drug prices

    The details of the PBM (pharmacy benefit managers) architecture are extraordinarily complicated, as Dayen's piece explains. But the basic idea is reasonably straightforward. PBMs date back to the 1960s, when they served as streamlined claims processors to intermediate between pharmacies and drug companies. As the industry grew, PBMs presented themselves as a way to keep drug prices low because they could "form large patient networks, and negotiate discounts from both drug companies and pharmacies, which would have no choice but to contract with them to access the network."

    Sounds reasonable enough. But over time, two big things changed: The health-care billing system got more and more hideously complex, and virtually all the PBMs were rolled up into three big companies -- ExpressScripts, CVS Caremark, and OptumRx, which now control a combined 75 to 80 percent of the market. As a result, the promised savings have not materialized. On the contrary, spending on prescription drugs exploded by 1,100 percent between 1987 and 2014, and all three companies -- which are each among the top 22 of the Fortune 500 -- rake in huge profits. Dayen reports that ExpressScripts' adjusted profit per prescription has increased by 500 percent since 2003.


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Sun Apr 30 20:43:06 EDT 2017

Items of Interest

Various web links I found to be of interest recently.

  • The Myth of a Superhuman AI

    by Kevin Kelly

    Yet buried in this scenario of a takeover of superhuman artificial intelligence are five assumptions which, when examined closely, are not based on any evidence. These claims might be true in the future, but there is no evidence to date to support them. The assumptions behind a superhuman intelligence arising soon are:

    1. Artificial intelligence is already getting smarter than us, at an exponential rate.
    2. We’ll make AIs into a general purpose intelligence, like our own.
    3. We can make human intelligence in silicon.
    4. Intelligence can be expanded without limit.
    5. Once we have exploding superintelligence it can solve most of our problems.

    In contradistinction to this orthodoxy, I find the following five heresies to have more evidence to support them.

    1. Intelligence is not a single dimension, so "smarter than humans" is a meaningless concept.
    2. Humans do not have general purpose minds, and neither will AIs.
    3. Emulation of human thinking in other media will be constrained by cost.
    4. Dimensions of intelligence are not infinite.
    5. Intelligences are only one factor in progress.

    If the expectation of a superhuman AI takeover is built on five key assumptions that have no basis in evidence, then this idea is more akin to a religious belief -- a myth.

  • How fascist is Donald Trump? There's actually a formula for that.

    Grading the billionaire on the 11 attributes of fascism.

    Add all this up, and you get 26 out of a possible 44 Benitos. In the fascist derby, Trump is a loser. Even Spain's Francisco Franco and Portugal's António de Oliveira Salazar might score higher. While there is a strong family resemblance, and with some features an uncanny likeness, Trump doesn't fit the profile so well on those points where the use of violence is required. Projecting an air of menace at rallies, uttering ambiguous calls for assassinations, tacitly endorsing the roughing-up of protesters, urging the killing of terrorists' families and whatever else Trump does -- while shocking by the standards of American politics -- fall far short of the genuinely murderous violence endorsed and unleashed by authentic fascists.

    Also see, Donald Trump isn't a fascist.

    A leading expert on 1930s-era politics explains that Trump is a right-wing populist, not a fascist -- and the distinction matters.

  • Scientists, Stop Thinking Explaining Science Will Fix Things

    Respondents who knew more about science generally, regardless of political leaning, were better able to identify the scientific consensus--in other words, the polarization disappeared. Yet, when the same people were asked for their own opinions about climate change, the polarization returned. It showed that even when people understand the scientific consensus, they may not accept it.

    The takeaway is clear: Increasing science literacy alone won't change minds. In fact, well-meaning attempts by scientists to inform the public might even backfire. Presenting facts that conflict with an individual's worldview, it turns out, can cause people to dig in further. Psychologists, aptly, dubbed this the "backfire effect."

  • David Chalmers Thinks the Hard Problem Is Really Hard

    Consciousness will still mystify us even if we scientifically solve it, philosopher predicts.

    John Horgan interviews philosopher David Chalmers

    I've always found him an admirably clear thinker, who doesn't oversell his ideas (unlike Daniel Dennett when he insists that consciousness is an "illusion").

  • Contra Tyler, on "Is rationality a religion?"

    Tyler Cowen called the rationality community a "religion" on Ezra Klein's podcast the other day.

    Julia Galef's quick reaction:

    Basically all humans are overconfident and have blind spots. And that includes self-described rationalists.

    But I see rationalists actively trying to compensate for those biases at least sometimes, and I see people in general do so almost never. For example, it's pretty common for rationalists to solicit criticism of their own ideas, or to acknowledge uncertainty in their claims.

    And another response to Tyler Cowen's comments to Ezra Klein from Bryan Caplan What's Wrong With the Rationality Community.

  • Disabled, or just desperate?

    Rural Americans turn to disability as jobs dry up

    Between 1996 and 2015, the number of working-age adults receiving disability climbed from 7.7 million to 13 million. The federal government this year will spend an estimated $192 billion on disability payments, more than the combined total for food stamps, welfare, housing subsidies and unemployment assistance.
    ...
    Across large swaths of the country, disability has become a force that has reshaped scores of mostly white, almost exclusively rural communities, where as many as one-third of working-age adults live on monthly disability checks, according to a Washington Post analysis of Social Security Administration statistics.

  • How America made Scandinavian social democracy possible

    The researchers suggest the migration flows, which were small relative to the native population of America but equivalent to about 25 per cent of the total population of Scandinavia, changed the character of Norwegian and Swedish society by removing the most ambitious and independently-minded people.

    In other words, Scandinavian social democracy might not be possible without America's historic willingness to absorb those who refused to follow the "Law of Jante".
    ...
    Had it not been for America's willingness to embrace enterprising nonconformist Scandinavians, "individualism" in Norway and Sweden would have been much greater and their particularly successful form of social democracy might never have been able to take root.


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Thu Apr 20 12:25:31 EDT 2017

Inequality Matters

Some web links on the topic of inequality.

  • It's Not Just Unfair: Inequality Is a Threat to Our Governance

    Book review: THE CRISIS OF THE MIDDLE-CLASS CONSTITUTION --
    Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic,

    In his fine book, both history and call to arms, Ganesh Sitaraman argues that the contemporary explosion of inequality will destroy the American Constitution, which is and was premised on the existence of a large and thriving middle class. He has done us all a great service, taking an issue of overwhelming public importance, delving into its history, helping understand how our forebears handled it and building a platform to think about it today.
    ...
    As recognized since ancient times, the coexistence of very rich and very poor leads to two possibilities, neither a happy one. The rich can rule alone, disenfranchising or even enslaving the poor, or the poor can rise up and confiscate the wealth of the rich. The rich tend to see themselves as better than the poor, a proclivity that is enhanced and even socially sanctioned in modern meritocracies. The poor, with little prospect of economic improvement and no access to political power, "might turn to a demagogue who would overthrow the government -- only to become a tyrant. Oligarchy or tyranny, economic inequality meant the end of the republic."

  • What Inequality Doesn't Mean

    Is inequality a death sentence for the American republic? Two recent books vigorously argue both sides of the case--with the naysayer pulling out ahead.

    Before accepting the conclusion(s), see the previous March 31 item What Do Economists Actually Know?

  • Stanford historian uncovers a grim correlation between violence and inequality over the millennia

    Professor Walter Scheidel examines the history of peace and economic inequality over the past 10,000 years.

    "It is almost universally true that violence has been necessary to ensure the redistribution of wealth at any point in time," said Scheidel, summarizing the thesis of The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, his newly published book.

    Surveying long stretches of human history, Scheidel said that "the big equalizing moments in history may not have always had the same cause, but they shared one common root: massive and violent disruptions of the established order."


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