Who needs self-driving cars?

by on December 3, 2016 at 3:42 am in Science, Web/Tech | Permalink

Nike Inc. this week begins selling a pricey sneaker with self-tying laces, a high-stakes test of the company’s technology investments and efforts to sell more products directly to consumers.

Since its founding, Nike has predominantly been a wholesaler. But as shopping shifts online, Nike is moving to lessen its reliance on retailers. It wants to double its direct sales to consumers to $16 billion by 2020, particularly as rivals Adidas AG and Under Armour Inc. have become more competitive in recent years.

That is where the self-lacing $720 HyperAdapt sneakers play a role. The company is offering the shoes exclusively on its relaunched Nike+ app and at a new retail store in New York City, beginning on Thursday. The idea is to hook consumers into buying via its app or visiting Nike stores for limited-edition sneaker releases, which to date has been a near-weekly phenomenon at Foot Locker and other retailers.

You might laugh, but this is actually an advance of real value, though ideally the price could come down a bit.  Here is one article, here is the WSJ, for pointers I thank the excellencies of Daniel Lippman and Samir Varma.

Here is a separate bit from that interview:

I’m interested in how animals are connected to the internet and how we might be able to see the world from an animal’s point of view. There’s something very interesting in someone else’s vantage point, which might have a truth to it. For instance, the tagging of cows for automatic milking machines, so that the cows can choose when to milk themselves. Cows went from being milked twice a day to being milked three to six times a day, which is great for the farm’s productivity and results in happier cows, but it’s also faintly disquieting that the technology makes clear to us the desires of cows – making them visible in ways they weren’t before. So what does one do with that knowledge? One of the unintended consequences of big data and the internet of things is that some things will become visible and compel us to confront them.

And on the main question at hand:

What we are seeing now isn’t an anxiety about artificial intelligence per se, it’s about what it says about us. That if you can make something like us, where does it leave us?

Here is the full interview with Genevieve Bell.

1. Due to massive inflation, shops in Venezuela are now weighing money rather than counting it–a true paper standard.

2. As the economy collapses, Venezuelan’s are turning to bitcoin–using free electricity to mine the coins–but the secret police are hunting the miners.

3. Larry White and Shruti Rajagopolan note that India’s demonetization is really an expropriation that will transfer wealth to the government. Whether the wealth transfer is of black market holdings or not remains to be seen.

4. George Borjas remember’s Castro’s demonetization:

Castro quickly found a simple way of confiscating “excess” cash. The currency was changed overnight. And everyone had to turn in their old paper currency for the new paper currency, with some limits being imposed on the amount of the transactions. There was a miles-long line on what I think was a Saturday morning, as the entire Cuban population was turned into beggars for the new currency.

5. Alex Bellos looks at Newcomb’s Problem. The answer is obvious.

6. Steven Pearlstein on Four tough things universities should do to rein in costs. I liked this bit of history:

In 2002, George Washington University President Stephen Trachtenberg noticed that the school owned roughly $1 billion worth of facilities that sat idle for at least a third of the year. If he could reconfigure the academic calendar for year-round operation, he reasoned, he could enroll thousands more students without having to build new classrooms, labs, dorms or athletic facilities.

Doing so, however, would have required some professors to periodically teach during the summer, which didn’t sit well with the Faculty Senate. Its report on the matter reads like a parody of self-interested whining by coddled academics dressed up as concern for the pedagogical and psychological well-being of their students.

Prices aren’t rising because costs are rising, however, costs are rising because prices are rising.

7. Evolution is amazing. By acting as selective breeders, poachers are changing the genetics of African elephants.

In some areas 98 per cent of female elephants now have no tusks, researchers have said, compared to between two and six percent born tuskless on average in the past.

Here is an overview of what is up, here is the plan itself.  Since it was produced by a bureaucracy rather than a blogger, it is hard to wade through the verbiage.  Nonetheless one of the bottom lines is a call for greater unity of methods and especially terms, so as to make discrete studies by different researchers more easily comparable, searchable, and aggregated into broader meta-studies, for instance:

In response to these types of measurement concerns, the Patient-Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System (PROMIS) developed a common scale or metric on which all measures of a given construct can be expressed. To achieve this, PROMIS developed and tested item banks using modern psychometric theory that, in addition to producing more precise and efficient measures, allow different measures of the same construct to be cocalibrated. As a result, different instruments measuring the same construct can be expressed on a single metric, aiding data harmonization and integration.

Another approach to addressing this data harmonization and integration challenge is to develop consensus measures for specific constructs. PhenX, for example, has developed a curated set of measurement protocols for specific phenotypic constructs. The NCI Grid-Enabled Measures website utilizes a crowdsourcing wiki approach to cataloging the various measures of a given social or behavioral construct. The National Library of Medicine has generated a directory of common data elements that serves as a repository for commonly accepted measures and data structures that, if adopted by researchers, would facilitate data integration across studies.

The original pointer is from Mitchell Eckert.  Keep in mind economists that, depending on your definition of economics, the NIH arguably supports at least as much economics research as does the NSF.

You might also be interested in University of Wisconsin job market candidate Nathan Yoder, whose main paper, a theory paper, is on improving incentives for academic research.  Here is the latter part of the abstract:

In keeping with current practice, the institution contracts based on the experiment’s result instead of its methodology. This removes a degree of freedom from the optimal design problem, but I show that there need not be loss from doing so. The optimal contract has two general characteristics. First, to discourage the production of false positive results, negative results supporting conventional wisdom must be rewarded. Second, the most informative results must be disproportionately rewarded. To arrive at these conclusions, I contribute to the literature by characterizing solutions and comparative statics of Bayesian persuasion problems using differentiability.

These topics remain very much understudied.

Whether you admit it or not, you have much to be thankful for.  For one thing, agricultural productivity is higher today than ever before…


Is it a kind of Flynn effect for the elderly?:

Dementia is actually on the wane. And when people do get dementia, they get it at older and older ages.

Previous studies found the same trend but involved much smaller and less diverse populations like the mostly white population of Framingham, Mass., and residents of a few areas in England and Wales.

The new study found that the dementia rate in Americans 65 and older fell by 24 percent over 12 years, to 8.8 percent in 2012 from 11.6 percent in 2000. That trend that is “statistically significant and impressive,” said Samuel Preston, a demographer at the University of Pennsylvania who was not associated with the study.

In 2000, people received a diagnosis of dementia at an average age of 80.7; in 2012, the average age was 82.

“The dementia rate is not immutable,” said Dr. Richard Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging. “It can change.”

And that “is very good news,” said John Haaga, director of the institute’s division of behavioral and social research. It means, he said, that “roughly a million and a half people aged 65 and older who do not have dementia now would have had it if the rate in 2000 had been in place.”

That is from Gina Kolata from the NYT.  The piece has many other points of interest.

It seems they do in China:

– The results show that when controlling for demographic, economic, and social factors, losses due to earthquakes are found to be associated with increases in both marriage and divorce rates. While the estimated elasticities are low, amounting to 1.92×10−2 and 6.102×10−2, respectively, they are highly significant, suggesting that a doubling of losses due to earthquakes increases marriages by 1.92 percent and divorces by 6.102 percent with a lag of one year. Since the first elasticity is smaller than the second, losses due to earthquakes may influence familial instability. Moreover, these effects increase in the second year but cannot be traced beyond three years after the disaster.

That is from Xu and Deng, and for the pointer I thank John Saunders.

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Steven of course was in top form. We started with irregular verbs, and then moved on to Chomsky, theories of language, the mind and Jon Haidt’s modules, reason, what unifies the thought and work of Steven Pinker, rap music, William Shatner (underrated, “although maybe not his singing”), Sontag on photography, the future of world peace, and the Ed Sullivan show.

Here is one bit:

COWEN: Let me now put on my economist’s hat and ask you about this. As you know, in George Orwell’s 1984, the Party bans all irregular verbs. It’s a kind of excess regulation. But from a social point of view, are there too many or too few irregular verbs in English?

PINKER: [laughs] I like the irregular verbs. I’d like to see more of them.

…One distinction that is vanishing that I think is sad is the three-way distinction in verbs like sink, sank, sunk; stink, stank, stunk; shrink, shrank, shrunk; where the shrank and the stank are giving way to their participle forms shrunkand stunk.

COWEN: No shrank and stank.

PINKER: No shrank and stank. Admittedly it would have been hard to have a movie called Honey, I Shrank the Kids instead of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. In my style manual, The Sense of Style, I recommend hanging on to them. I think they’re nice.

And on Chomsky:

PINKER: It’s a moving target. Also, as you say, it was neither specified in a precise way nor field‑tested against a dataset of language variation, which I think is unfortunate in terms of ordinary scientific practice.

On peace:

COWEN: Let me ask you a general question. Let’s say it were possible by spending $10,000 and devoting a few months of your life to it that any person on earth could blow up a significant part of a major city.

They could buy something, some kind of explosive. It would cost them $10,000. How long would it take before someone actually did this?

PINKER: I don’t know. My optimism doesn’t consist of prophecy in that sense. That is, my optimism consists of looking at what has happened and noting that, first of all, the pessimistic view is factually incorrect. Namely, people believe that we’re living in unusually violent times and we’re not.

How to project that into the future is a separate set of questions. There are many unknowns that I’m not arrogant enough to know the answer to. It’s something that we could debate. We could explore them. I am not an optimist in the sense of saying, “Well, let’s just extrapolate the curves in the future without asking questions like that.”

Self-recommending, to be sure…

This seems like one of many under-reported stories of this year, and I think that holds no matter what is your point of view on abortion:

Although many limitations remain, innovative dispensing efforts in some states, restricted access to surgical abortions in others and greater awareness boosted medication abortions to 43 percent of pregnancy terminations at Planned Parenthood clinics, the nation’s single largest provider, in 2014, up from 35 percent in 2010, according to previously unreported figures from the nonprofit.

The national rate is likely even higher now because of new federal prescribing guidelines that took effect in March. In three states most impacted by that change – Ohio, Texas and North Dakota – demand for medication abortions tripled in the last several months to as much as 30 percent of all procedures in some clinics, according to data gathered by Reuters from clinics, state health departments and Planned Parenthood affiliates.

Among states with few or no restrictions, medication abortions comprise a greater share, up to 55 percent in Michigan and 64 percent in Iowa.

…Studies have shown medical abortions are effective up to 95 percent of the time.

Approved in France in 1988, the abortion pill was supposed to be a game changer, a convenient and private way to end pregnancy. In Western Europe, medication abortion is more common, accounting for 91 percent of pregnancy terminations in Finland, the highest rate, followed by Scotland at 80 percent, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit research organization that supports abortion rights.

Here is the full account, via a loyal MR reader.

The NYTimes has an excellent feature on genetically modified crops, written by Danny Hakim joined by Karl Russell on data. The usual story is about a battle between fears of contamination on one side and the potential of increased yields on the other but the Times story is about how genetically modified crops have failed to increase yields or reduce pesticide use. This has been discussed in the scientific literature for a few years (e.g. here) and Tom Philpott at Mother Jones has covered the story earlier but the Times story really brings it home in a dramatic way. The graphics are especially good.

Here’s one graph showing corn crop yields in the United States, which uses GMOs, and Western Europe which does not. See the difference?gmo-crops

Addendum: Some good further discussion here, h/t ant1900 in the comments.

The Steven Pinker podcast and transcript will be ready next week, November 7 is a live event with Joseph Henrich, a Conversation with Tyler, Arlington campus 6 p.m.  If you don’t already know, here is Joseph Henrich:

Joseph Henrich…[is]…an expert on the evolution of human cooperation and culture…

Henrich’s research has challenged the typical narrative about human evolution to show how our collective brains – our ability to socially interconnect and learn from one another – is the driving factor behind our evolutionary success. Henrich presents these compelling arguments in his latest book, The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter (2015).

Co-author of Why Humans Cooperate: A Cultural and Evolutionary Explanation (2007), Henrich’s research seeks to discover the role of culture in shaping our evolution; how evolutionary theory can help us understand how we learn and transmit culture; the role of war and conflict in the evolution of cooperation and sociality; what factors drive innovation and cultural evolution; and ultimately what has allowed humankind to flourish over other species.

Henrich earned his MA and PhD in anthropology from University of California at Los Angeles. He currently teaches at Harvard University as a professor of human evolutionary biology.

So what should I ask Joseph Henrich?

Department of Ho-Hum

by on October 14, 2016 at 1:33 pm in Science | Permalink

That is the next Conversation with Tyler, October 24th, at George Mason in Arlington, you can register here.

What should I ask him?  I thank you all in advance.

And these days, that means today is a Messy day:

Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives celebrates the benefits that messiness has in our lives: why it’s important, why we resist it, and why we should embrace it instead. Using research from neuroscience, psychology, social science, as well as tales of inspiring people doing extraordinary things, I explain that the human qualities we value – creativity, responsiveness, resilience – are integral to the disorder, confusion, and disarray that produce them.

As I wrote the book, I grappled with the way Martin Luther King’s speechmaking style evolved from careful preparation to impromptu genius. I tried to tease out the connections between the brilliant panzer commander Erwin Rommel, Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, and the primary campaign of Donald Trump. I interviewed Stewart Brand about the world’s most creative messy building – and Brian Eno about the way David Bowie would reject perfection in favour of something flawed and interesting every time.

I loved writing this book.

As I’ve already written, it is Tim’s best and deepest book.  Here is the book’s home page.  You can order the book here, it is out today a messy day it must be.

From the comments, on cyberattacks

by on September 30, 2016 at 2:18 pm in Science, Web/Tech | Permalink

As someone who does software and hardware, I don’t think we are anywhere near the point where a mix of hardware and software in everyday things will give us anything more than sorrow. We are already seeing rather scary things with the Internet of Things: Denial of service attacks larger than anything we’ve ever seen, because networked software is often faulty, and selling it only in hardware means vulnerabilities stay forever. It’s not just that someone can take over your CCTV camera, or the system controlling your lightbulbs, but that their computing power can be used to attack any business or individual at any time.

We have seen attacks this week that were large enough to shut down any online payment processor. For instance, imagine that the set of people with the resources for launching those attacks wanted to stop Hillary from taking online donations for as long as possible: I’d not bet against them being able to do that for a couple of weeks at the least, and that’s today. Every day more devices with weak security and no updates are sold. We see records of attack strength beaten every month: Akamai has trouble handling them today. The more devices we sell, the bigger the weapon we are handing out, and we are lacking any mechanisms to increase security because incentives are all wrong.

That is from Bob.