Wed Mar 26 13:10:44 EDT 2014

Items of Interest

Some web links I found to be of interest:

  • Antioxidants Could Increase Cancer Rates
    Science / AAAS

    Many people take vitamins such as A, E, and C thinking that their antioxidant properties will ward off cancer. But some clinical trials have suggested that such antioxidants, which sop up DNA-damaging molecules called free radicals, have the opposite effect and raise cancer risk in certain people. Now, in a provocative study that raises unsettling questions about the widespread use of vitamin supplements, Swedish researchers have showed that relatively low doses of antioxidants spur the growth of early lung tumors in cancer-prone mice, perhaps by hindering a well-known tumor suppressor gene.

  • What Drives Success?
    By Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeldjan

    It turns out that for all their diversity, the strikingly successful groups in America today share three traits that, together, propel success. The first is a superiority complex - a deep-seated belief in their exceptionality. The second appears to be the opposite - insecurity, a feeling that you or what you've done is not good enough. The third is impulse control.

  • How to stop giving a F@$% what people think."
    Start living your life

    It's impossible to live up to everyone's expectations. There will always be people - no matter what we say or how we treat them - that will judge us. Whether you're at the gym, at work, taking the train, or even online playing Call of Duty. Even now it's happening. You will never be able to stop people from judging you, but you can stop it from affecting you.

  • Indecision is sometime the best way to decide
    by Steve Fleming

    Quick decision-making might seem bold, but the agony of indecision is your brain's way of making a better choice

  • The Anti-Fragility of Health
    by Esther Dyson

    Nassim Nicholas Taleb, perhaps best known as the author of The Black Swan, has written a wonderful new book called Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. According to Taleb, things that are anti-fragile - mostly living things - not only resist being broken; they actually grow stronger under stress. When coddled too much, they grow weaker. Evolution is an anti-fragile process.

    Health itself is the capacity to undergo stress and react positively to it - anti-fragility in a specific context. For example, without exposure to infectious agents, the human immune system will never learn how to ward off invaders and may even turn inward, as in auto-immune diseases. Muscles need to work (and be stressed) to grow strong. The discomfort of hunger impels us to eat.

  • New Truths That Only One Can See
    It has been jarring to learn in recent years that a reproducible result may actually be the rarest of birds.

    Given the desire for ambitious scientists to break from the pack with a striking new finding, Dr. Ioannidis reasoned, many hypotheses already start with a high chance of being wrong. Otherwise proving them right would not be so difficult and surprising - and supportive of a scientist's career. Taking into account the human tendency to see what we want to see, unconscious bias is inevitable. Without any ill intent, a scientist may be nudged toward interpreting the data so it supports the hypothesis, even if just barely.

  • Indefensible Kissinger - By Gary J. Bass
    As more details come to light, the darker his deeds seem.

    Can we please stop already with the tributes to Henry Kissinger? As more and more material gets declassified, there are periodic exposures of his uglier deeds. Walter Isaacson's biography showed in detail how Kissinger had the FBI put wiretaps on journalists and government officials, including some of his own top staffers. A couple of years ago, it was revealed that back in 1975, while discussing how the Khmer Rouge had killed tens of thousands, he told Thailand's foreign minister, "You should also tell the Cambodians"-the Khmer Rouge-"that we will be friends with them. They are murderous thugs, but we won't let that stand in our way." More recently, an Oval Office tape was released that captured Kissinger in 1973 saying, "if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern."

  • The truth about charter schools:
    Padded cells, corruption, lousy instruction and worse results

    Charter schools are sold as an answer. With awful discipline and shocking scandals, many really cause new problems

  • The 'Nutcracker Man' Diet:
    Extinct Species Of Early Human Survived on 'Tiger Nuts,' Not Meat

    Fresh analysis of an extinct relative of humans suggests our ancient ancestors dined primarily on tiger nuts, which are edible grass bulbs, settling a discrepancy over what made up prehistoric diets.

    What does this say about the Paleo diet and eating meat?

  • TED isn't a recipe for 'civilisational disaster' - Chris Anderson

    It's a misconception that TED talks oversimplify complex subjects. As its curator, I'm committed to the principle that knowledge should be shared.

  • This is your brain on religion: Uncovering the science of belief
    Why are some people of faith generous - while others are nuts?

    It does indeed seem that religion must have afforded an evolutionary advantage. Receptiveness to religion is determined by spirituality, which is 50 percent genetically determined, as twin studies have shown. Spirituality is a characteristic that everyone has to a degree, even if they don't belong to a church. Religion is the local shape given to our spiritual feelings. The decision to be religious or not certainly isn't "free." The surroundings in which we grow up cause the parental religion to be imprinted in our brain circuitries during early development, in a similar way to our native language. Chemical messengers like serotonin affect the extent to which we are spiritual: The number of serotonin receptors in the brain corresponds to scores for spirituality. And substances that affect serotonin, like LSD, mescaline (from the peyote cactus), and psilocybin (from magic mushrooms) can generate mystical and spiritual experiences. Spiritual experiences can also be induced with substances that affect the brain's opiate system.

  • Review of Richard X. Bove's book "Guardians of Prosperity: Why America Needs Big Banks"
    by Roger Lowenstein

    A Book-Length Defense of Big Banks Goes Long on Straw Men and Conspiracy Theories

  • Why Non-Profit Hospitals Are So Profitable

    "And then there is the business model of 'non-profit' hospitals, which are, in fact, among the most profitable enterprises in the country."

    "Every hospital has what is called a 'chargemaster,' a list of what it charges for everything from a day in the ICU to a single aspirin."
    "Medicare and insurance companies pay a fraction of the nominal prices. MD Anderson, a high-powered cancer hospital in Houston, charges $283 for a simple chest X-ray and Medicare pays the hospital $20.44."

Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Fri Feb 28 11:26:05 EST 2014

Items of Interest

Some web links I found to be of interest:

  • New Poll Shows That Americans Are Losing Faith In God
    Business Insider

    A new Harris Poll released today reveals that only 74% of Americans believe in God, an 8% decline since 2009.

  • Why Have No High-Level Executives Been Prosecuted?
    The New York Review of Books

    I want to stress again that I do not claim that the financial crisis that is still causing so many of us so much pain and despondency was the product, in whole or in part, of fraudulent misconduct. But if it was-as various governmental authorities have asserted it was - then the failure of the government to bring to justice those responsible for such colossal fraud bespeaks weaknesses in our prosecutorial system that need to be addressed.

  • Why won't the President rein in the intelligence community?
    The New Yorker: State of Deception

    Wyden, who said that he has had "several spirited discussions" with Obama, is not optimistic. "It really seems like General Clapper, the intelligence leadership, and the lawyers drive this in terms of how decisions get made at the White House," he told me. It is evident from the Snowden leaks that Obama inherited a regime of dragnet surveillance that often operated outside the law and raised serious constitutional questions. Instead of shutting down or scaling back the programs, Obama has worked to bring them into narrow compliance with rules-set forth by a court that operates in secret-that often contradict the views on surveillance that he strongly expressed when he was a senator and a Presidential candidate.

  • Who's good at forecasts?
    Philip Tetlock and Advanced Research Projects Activity forecasting tournaments.

    The only reliable method is to conduct a forecasting tournament in which independent judges ask all participants to make the same forecasts in the same timeframes. And forecasts must be expressed numerically, so there can be no hiding behind vague verbiage. Words like "may" or "possible" can mean anything from probabilities as low as 0.001% to as high as 60% or 70%. But 80% always and only means 80%

  • Criticism of Malcolm Gladwell

    The Gladwell pivot
    Commentary on the chapter about dyslexia in Malcolm Gladwell's book David and Goliath

    The gripe about Gladwell is his selective use of such information-not letting facts get in the way of a good story. A different story, certainly a more nuanced one, would result if other studies, other personal narratives, other experts had been considered. The average reader is not aware of what has been left out and thus can be easily mislead. His selective use of the research literature turns scientific findings into another form of anecdote. This is particularly bothersome to scientists whose own first commandment is something like: thou shalt address all relevant evidence, not merely the findings that support the most interesting, attention-getting hypothesis.

    Malcolm Gladwell Is America's Best-Paid Fairy-Tale Writer

    But the mix of moralism and scientism is an ever-winning formula, as Gladwell's career demonstrates. Speaking to a time that prides itself on optimism and secretly suspects that nothing works, his books are analgesics for those who seek temporary relief from abiding anxiety. There is more of reality and wisdom in a Chinese fortune cookie than can be found anywhere in Gladwell's pages. But then, it is not reality or wisdom that his readers are looking for.

  • Change Blindness
    PBS NOVA Video Blog

    Your brain really doesn't remember the things it sees very well. While it might capture certain aspects of the world, it mostly discards the information it processes.

  • Why Not Immortality?
    Communications of the ACM

    "Biological systems fail because at some point it's cheaper to make new ones." This is nature's form of cost-benefit analysis. Optimal design balances the marginal benefit of investing in the old versus investing in the new.

  • Eldercare Sourcebook

    Award-winning research site for professionals and family members looking for information on aging, eldercare, and long term care, including information on legal, financial, medical, and housing issues, policy, research, and statistics.

  • 18 Signs Economists Haven't the Foggiest
    Unlearning Economics: Criticism of mainstream economists and economics.

    ... outlining the major reasons why economists can be completely out of touch with their public image, as well as how they should do "science", and why their discipline is so ripe for criticism (most of which they are unaware of).

Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Mon Jan 27 13:52:22 EST 2014

Crisis in Science

There are currently problems in the way science is being done and reported. Here are some references about the crisis in science that I've run across recently. The problems seem to be most prominent in the area of psychology.

  • How journals like Nature, Cell and Science are damaging science
    The incentives offered by top journals distort science, just as big bonuses distort banking.

    Just as Wall Street needs to break the hold of the bonus culture, which drives risk-taking that is rational for individuals but damaging to the financial system, so science must break the tyranny of the luxury journals. The result will be better research that better serves science and society.

  • Science has lost its way, at a big cost to humanity
    Researchers are rewarded for splashy findings, not for double-checking accuracy. So many scientists looking for cures to diseases have been building on ideas that aren't even true.

    The demand for sexy results, combined with indifferent follow-up, means that billions of dollars in worldwide resources devoted to finding and developing remedies for the diseases that afflict us all is being thrown down a rathole. NIH and the rest of the scientific community are just now waking up to the realization that science has lost its way, and it may take years to get back on the right path.

  • Weak statistical standards implicated in scientific irreproducibility
    One-quarter of studies that meet commonly used statistical cutoff may be false.

    The plague of non-reproducibility in science may be mostly due to scientists' use of weak statistical tests, as shown by an innovative method developed by statistician Valen Johnson, at Texas A&M University in College Station.

  • Psychologists strike a blow for reproducibility
    Thirty-six labs collaborate to check 13 earlier findings.

    A large international group set up to test the reliability of psychology experiments has successfully reproduced the results of 10 out of 13 past experiments. The consortium also found that two effects could not be reproduced.

  • Open Science Framework Reproducibility Project: Psychology

    Do normative scientific practices and incentive structures produce a biased body of research evidence? The Reproducibility Project is a crowdsourced empirical effort to estimate the reproducibility of a sample of studies from scientific literature. The project is a large-scale, open collaboration currently involving more than 150 scientists from around the world.

  • Science and Its Skeptics
    There is a crisis in replicability.

    Is John Horgan right in being struck by all the "breakthroughs" and "revolutions" that have failed to live up to their hype: string theory and other supposed "theories of everything," self-organized criticality and other theories of complexity, anti-angiogenesis drugs and other potential "cures" for cancer, drugs that can make depressed patients "better than well," "genes for" alcoholism, homosexuality, high IQ and schizophrenia.

Addendum 02/02/2014: Scientific Pride and Prejudice

... science might look for help to the humanities, and to literary criticism in particular.

A major root of the crisis is selective use of data. Scientists, eager to make striking new claims, focus only on evidence that supports their preconceptions. Psychologists call this "confirmation bias": We seek out information that confirms what we already believe. "We each begin probably with a little bias," as Jane Austen writes in "Persuasion," "and upon that bias build every circumstance in favor of it."

Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Tue Dec 31 21:27:28 EST 2013

Items of Interest

Some web links I found to be of interest:

  • The Psychiatric Drug Crisis

    Despite their continued failure to understand how psychiatric drugs work, doctors continue to tell patients that their troubles are the result of chemical imbalances in their brains. As Frank Ayd pointed out, this explanation helps reassure patients even as it encourages them to take their medicine, and it fits in perfectly with our expectation that doctors will seek out and destroy the chemical villains responsible for all of our suffering, both physical and mental. The theory may not work as science, but it is a devastatingly effective myth.

  • Richard Posner Explains SEC Refusal to Act in Lehman Brothers Case

    Judge Richard Posner in a 1985 Columbia Law Review article wrote:

    This means that the criminal law is designed primarily for the nonaffluent; the affluent are kept in line, for the most part, by tort law. This may seem to be a left-wing kind of suggestion ("criminal law keeps the lid on the lower classes"), but it is not. It is efficient to use different sanctions depending on an offender's wealth.

  • Study proves that politics and math are incompatible
    People were more likely to solve a problem incorrectly when it conflicted with their political beliefs

    But according to Yale law professor Dan Kahan, it's easier than we think for reasonable people to trick themselves into reaching unreasonable conclusions. Kahan and his team found that, when it comes to controversial issues, people's ability to do math is impacted by their political beliefs.

  • On being `right' in science
    Chris Holdgraf in PLOS Blogs: Diverse Perspectives on Science and Medicine

    As an academic, I've often heard that "the facts speak for themselves", or that one need only to "look at the data" in order to see the truth. Unfortunately, experience has taught me that neither of these statements is correct. Facts are always colored by the context in which they are presented, and data can be massaged and molded to tell almost any story you want. And so what if you're correct, if nobody will pay attention to you in the first place?

  • Life and Death in Assisted Living
    ProPublica and PBS Frontline documentary

    When things go wrong in assisted living, people can pay with their dignity, and sometimes with their lives.

  • The Problem with the Neuroscience Backlash
    "Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience," by Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld

    If critics are too pessimistic about what the future holds, they are right about one thing: over the past decade, neuroscience has become overprivileged as a method of examining the mind. Journalists, courts, and sometimes even scientists seem to believe that a brain scan can be more telling than a profile of an individual's behavior. Perhaps as neuroscience progresses, it is possible for objective, physiological assessment of the brain to win out as the ultimate arbiter of truth when it comes to the mind. But that's a long way off, if it ever will be possible at all.

  • New meta-analysis checks the correlation between intelligence and faith
    First systematic analysis of its kind even proposes reasons for the negative correlation.

    ... if you look at the studies conducted over the past century, you will find that those with religious beliefs will, on the whole, score lower on tests of intelligence.

Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Wed Nov 13 15:26:26 EST 2013

Ritholtz Bubble

I have been reading Barry Ritholtz', The Big Picture blog, regularly since 2008 and watching his star rise over the years. However, lately I have found him to be less interesting and not as informative, perhaps because there is little new and I know how he thinks and have already absorbed all he has to say.

But I wonder if like a stock that keeps going up, is Barry Ritholtz approaching bubble status? In addition to his blog and his Washington Post column and his increasing number of media appearances, here are some recent indications from his blog:

  • Getting Rid of Comments     (February 2013)

    Back in February 2013, he started censoring comments to his blog. Undoubtedly there were many that deserved it, but I know some did not. For example, comments about publishing all predictions in real time and not just mentioning months later the ones that worked out.

  • Site Redesign     (March 2013)

    Seems to me it is all about increasing the number of viewers in order to have more customers who will pay management fees for his investment advice.

  • Wealth Management     (September 2013)

    Barry leaves FusionIQ to start his own firm Ritholtz Wealth Management. Is this similar to a company building a fancy new headquarters prior to going bankrupt?

  • Bloomberg column     (November 2013)

    Expanding his media presence, Barry joins Bloomberg View and Radio group. Now his daily missives can be read on Bloomberg's web site in addition to his own. Is this overexposure?

And similar to the value of a stock in a bubble, what is Barry's value proposition? On the one hand he touts the value of indexing, asset allocation, and low coast ETFs. On the other hand he wants a percent or two to do that for you without presenting any evidence that he can beat the market. Like all the talking heads he gives opinions of what might go up or down, but who can keep track of how that translates into making or losing money? Why do none of the market prognosticators have a public model portfolio with various bond and stock funds and ETFs that show they can do better than a general diversified basket of low cost ETFs with yearly rebalancing? Barry is better than most in that he has some humility, but I fear that as he reaches new heights, the selling of his image will have to grow too.

Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Thu Oct 31 17:17:07 EDT 2013

The Unknowable

When discussing with scientists topics like free will, when/how did the universe begin, does it have an end, what was there before the beginning, etc, they usually disagree with my point of view that these questions are beyond the capabilities of our brains to comprehend. Instead most think it's just a matter of time (albeit maybe a long time) before we can understand everything. It seems obvious to me that this cannot be true, because we and our brains have evolved over time so that we can think and understand things lower animals cannot. But evolution will continue so humans and their brains will no longer be the top rung of the ladder and other species will evolve that can understand things we cannot. Along these line I was glad to see that Lord Martin Rees, Britain's Astronomer Royal, expresses similar thoughts in Financial Times Magazine:

"Thinking about life on Earth, most people see us as the culmination but we know the sun is only halfway through its life," he says. "There is no reason to think that we're the culmination. Even if there's no life beyond Earth now, we can imagine a post-human species spreading far beyond Earth. Moreover, any [human] evolution in the future will be on the technological timescale of centuries rather than the Darwinian timescale of millions of years."
. . .
Mind-boggling concepts such as the multiverse, string theory, dark energy, supersymmetry and hidden dimensions of space and time raise the question of whether we can ever grasp the deep realities of nature. Rees thinks not.
"It is remarkable that our brains, which have changed little since our ancestors roamed the African savannah, have allowed us to understand the counterintuitive worlds of the quantum and the cosmos," he says. But there is no reason to think that our comprehension is matched to an understanding of all key features of reality.

"Some of these insights may have to wait for post-human intelligence. There may be phenomena, crucial to our long-term destiny, which we are not aware of -- any more than a monkey comprehends the nature of stars and galaxies."

Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Thu Sep 19 21:06:15 EDT 2013

Items of Interest

Some web links I found to be of interest:

  • America No Longer Has a Functioning Judicial System
    The Separation of Powers Which Define Our Democracy Have Been Destroyed.

    Bush destroyed much of the separation of powers which made our country great.
    But under Obama, it's gotten worse.

  • Spying Program Doesn't Make Us Safer and Spying Leaks Don't Harm America
    NSA Leaks Help -- Rather than Hurt -- the United States

    America's top national security experts say that the NSA's mass surveillance program doesn't make us safer and that whistleblowers revealing the nature and extent of the program don't harm America.

  • The Tabarrok Curve: Why The Patent System Is Not Fit For Purpose

    Dr. Tabarrok argued in his 2011 book "Launching the Innovation Renaissance" that patents cannot encourage innovation if they raise its costs. In fields where innovation is a cumulative process, he argued, restricting patents would cause firms to lose some of their monopoly rights, but they would gain the opportunity to use the innovations of others. "The result is greater total innovation."

    Patents are supposed to prevent imitation, but in practice, imitation is often more costly than innovation. Most patent disputes are not about firms copying each other's inventions but about two companies discovering simultaneously the next step in an innovative process. Yet patent law can't easily handle that type of situation.

  • The Emerging Science of Memes

    No one has any idea what makes something go viral in the first place. Attempts to predict what will go viral on the internet are based on the past behavior of a meme. As Coscia emphasizes in his work, no one has yet to rigorously demonstrate, in advance, why any particular type of content goes viral. This sort of prognostication remains an art rather than a science.

  • The Problem With Psychiatry, the DSM and the Way We Study Mental Illness

    Psychiatry is under attack for not being scientific enough, but the real problem is its blindness to culture. When it comes to mental illness, we wear the disorders that come off the rack.

    ... Americans, for some reason, find it particularly difficult to grasp that mental illnesses are absolutely real and culturally shaped at the same time

Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

Tue Aug 13 22:23:43 EDT 2013

Perpetual Money Machine

US economic policy over the past few decades reminds me of proposals for perpetual motion machines, which are known to be impossible because you can't create something (energy) out of nothing. The laws of thermodynamics say it is impossibled to create energy out of nothing. Similarly for wealth. How can financial manipulations create new wealth out of nothing? John Mauldin in his blog post We Can't Take the Chance under the section A Few Impossible Things" discusses this and what needs to change. Here are some select quotes:

  • ... whereas the belief of some marginal scientists in a perpetual motion machine had essentially no impact, its financial equivalent has been the hidden cause behind the current economic impasse.
  • A case in point is the myth, developed in the last thirty years, of an eternal economic growth, based in financial innovations, rather than on real productivity gains strongly rooted in better management, improved design, and fueled by innovation and creativity. This has created an illusion that value can be extracted out of nothing; the mythical story of the perpetual money machine, dreamed up before breakfast.
  • But, the policies implemented since 2008, with ultra-low interest rates, quantitative easing and other financial alchemical gesticulations, are essentially following the pattern of the last thirty years, namely the financialization of real problems plaguing the real economy. Rather than still hoping that real wealth will come out of money creation, an illusion also found in the current management of the on-going European sovereign and banking crises, we need fundamentally new ways of thinking.

    Read the entire section A Few Impossible Things at We Can't Take the Chance.

  • Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

    Wed Jul 31 23:15:08 EDT 2013

    Items of Interest

    Some web links I found to be of interest:

    Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments

    Sun Jun 23 20:13:32 EDT 2013

    NSA, PRISM and Snowden

    In all the discussions related to whistleblower Edward Snowden's revelations about the NSA and the PRISM surveillance program, first revealed by Glen Greenwald in The Guardian, there are some points I have not seen mentioned and that I wonder about.

  • Isn't the fact that they did NOT stop the Boston marathon bombers evidence the surveillance program does NOT work very well? It seems it was only helpful AFTER the fact in figuring out the motives.
  • As the Osama bin Laden raid showed, real terrorists do NOT use the phone system or the internet.
  • Now that everyone knows about the NSA surveillance, who would be dumb enough to get caught that way? Even if was useful before, how can it still be?
  • I don't understand the government's reasons for secrecy. If as the government says they foiled more than 50 terrorist plots, surely the people who got caught and their associates (and now terrorists everywhere) know about the surveillance programs. It seems to me the main purpose for secrecy is to keep the American people in the dark about it. (Likewise the secrecy behind the deaths caused by our drones only keeps Americans in the dark; those being attacked know how many terrorists and innocent people are being killed.)
  • Some things about this massive indiscriminate collection of information reminds me of Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to shoot down incoming missiles. A big problem there was the enemy could send in hundreds of decoys and there was no good way to distinguish them from the real threats. Similarly why couldn't anyone who wants to foil NSA surveillance, overwhelm the system with dummy phone calls and email messages? Given the amount of email spam and the phone robocalls I get, it doesn't seem that hard to do.
  • Why not require the government to prove they can do what they claim? Here's a way that doesn't require giving away any secrets. Under the auspices of some legitimate technically knowledgeable organization, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) who defends the public's digital rights interests or the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) for computer professionals, let an unknown group of people use phones and email to plan a mock terrorist attack and see if the NSA can catch them! They would be allowed to use fake message decoys and encryption and other methods to obfuscate the real plot. I bet the government would (a) not accept the challenge, and or (b) not catch them.

    Addendum 06/24/2013: For some clues to possible answers see:

    The Dirty Little Secret About Mass Surveillance: It Doesn't Keep Us Safe

    Top National Security Experts: Spying Program Doesn't Make Us Safer, and Spying Leaks Don't Harm America

  • Posted by mjm | Permanent link | Comments