A Real Life Milgram Experiment

by on October 23, 2014 at 7:30 am in Education, Film, Science | Permalink

This amazing video, introduced by Philip Zimbardo, discusses a real world Milgram “experiment” in which people obeyed an authority figure to an astounding degree, even when the authority figure was just on the telephone.

The video comes from the Heroic Imagination Project which hopes to use the results of social psychology to help people to take effective action in challenging situations. More videos on obedience to authority, including from Milgram’s experiment, can be found in the resource section along with other social psychology videos and other interesting materials.

Here is one more, this time a little lighter, an experiment in which people find themselves unexpectedly married:

From The Daily Beast:

Greg and Jill Henderson, founders of Hendo, have developed a real hoverboard. Yes, the flying skateboard that millions of moviegoers have wished were real since Back to the Future Part II premiered back in 1989 may become the must-have Christmas gift for 2015. Using “hover engines” that create frictionless magnetic fields, the hoverboard only appears to hover an inch or two off a metallic floor. It’s not exactly ready for, or usable on, concrete but everything has to start somewhere.

There is more here.  It needs something like a copper sheet below it.  There are different accounts here, with varying degrees of enthusiasm or lack thereof, I found this one useful.  Still, this is more progress than we were seeing a year ago.

Geoff Olynyk writes:

So for once I can intelligently comment on a Marginal Revolution article. (I have a Ph.D. in applied plasma physics and fusion energy; I worked on the “conventional” fusion reactor design, the tokamak). Lockheed hasn’t released many details of their concept (at least, not enough details that it can actually be evaluated in technical detail), but it looks like it’s a combination of a magnetic mirror and a levitated dipole. The magnetic mirror was studied in detail in the 1960s and 1970s and didn’t work out (due to [detailed plasma physics reasons]) and the levitated dipole has a fundamental flaw as a power-producing reactor in that the superconducting magnets are inside the neutron shielding – neutrons destroy the magnets.

It’s tough as a scientist to be able to comment on things like this, because it’s “science by press release”, i.e. there’s a big media hype but the actual researchers don’t release enough technical details to actually evaluate it. One wants to remain cautiously optimistic, but with fusion in particular, we’ve been down this road many, many times. Thus I predict that the most likely outcome is that as they scale their device up, they’ll find that the confinement (a measure of how well the device holds a fusion plasma) unexpectedly drops off due to some different types of turbulence turning on at higher temperatures / higher pressures… and it will quietly go away.

I hope that I am proven wrong.

There are other interesting comments at the link and Kottke offers more.

A compact fusion reactor?

by on October 15, 2014 at 6:25 pm in Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

Here is Guy Norris:

Hidden away in the secret depths of the Skunk Works, a Lockheed Martin research team has been working quietly on a nuclear energy concept they believe has the potential to meet, if not eventually decrease, the world’s insatiable demand for power.

Dubbed the compact fusion reactor (CFR), the device is conceptually safer, cleaner and more powerful than much larger, current nuclear systems that rely on fission, the process of splitting atoms to release energy. Crucially, by being “compact,” Lockheed believes its scalable concept will also be small and practical enough for applications ranging from interplanetary spacecraft and commercial ships to city power stations. It may even revive the concept of large, nuclear-powered aircraft that virtually never require refueling—ideas of which were largely abandoned more than 50 years ago because of the dangers and complexities involved with nuclear fission reactors.

Here is another account.  It is suggested that the reactor can fit on the back of a truck.

In response to such speculative reports I usually say: “If it’s true, why isn’t the price of oil down?”  But these days the price of oil is down!  I am not suggesting this is the reason, but at least I can no longer say “If it’s true, why isn’t the price of oil down?”.  I have to say something else, so if this is true — which I cannot judge — there is no great stagnation (any more).

For the pointer I thank various MR readers.

Discover Cosmic Rays with your SmartPhone

by on October 14, 2014 at 9:44 am in Science | Permalink

This is one of the stories that I had to double check to make sure it wasn’t a hoax but it does check out. Here’s the background:

[R]esearchers from the University of California have drafted a paper in which they describe testing whether a smartphone camera can detect high energy photons and particles of the sort produced by cosmic rays. Testing with radioactive isotopes of radium, cobalt, and cesium showed that the detector easily picked up gamma rays (and you didn’t even have to point the phones at the source!). They also put a phone inside a lead box and showed that they could detect high energy particles. Finally, they took a phone up on a commercial flight and were able to obtain a particle track across the detector.

With everything looking good, they made some software, called CRAYFIS, for cosmic rays found in smartphones (why they didn’t add “and handhelds,” I’m not sure). When your phone is inactive and plugged in for charging, CRAYFIS monitors the camera, looking for signs of high-energy items striking the detector. The authors calculate that if they can get 1,000 active cell phones within a square kilometer, they’ll be able to detect nearly all of the high energy cosmic rays that strike the atmosphere above it despite the low efficiency of each individual detector.

You can find out more about the science and sign up your smartphone here.

There are now some 1.75 billion smartphone users in the world and soon there will be many more. That’s an astounding amount of computing power distributed over most of the world’s surface and it’s computing power that is capable of reaching out to the world around it to measure, monitor, test and connect.

I found this piece by Alex Hutchinson very interesting, here is one excerpt on the issue of incentives:

One reason marathoners are running faster is that road racing is more lucrative. When the Sheikh of Dubai put up $1 million in prize money plus a $1 million world-record bonus in 2008, the Dubai Marathon instantly became one of the world’s fastest, despite its desert temps (average high in January, when the race is held, is 75°F). In fact, prize money for road races more than doubled since 1998, while track racing purses have gotten smaller (see below). As a result, runners are increasingly heading straight to the marathon. But big money can also draw the fastest runners away from the fastest courses, and the standard winner-takes-most prize structure favors cat-and-mouse tactics as runners race each other instead of the clock. When the Amsterdam Marathon switched to time-based prizing in 1999, four different runners immediately smashed the course record by 90 seconds. The sub-two-hour solution? A big pot of money that runners can win no matter where they race, and that is shared equally among all who break 2:00 in that event.

It is not obvious to me why a big first prize is not a good incentive, for instance why does it militate against speed to “race each other instead of the clock”?  Is it that the runners stay on too few courses, thus lowering the variance of performance outcomes?

In any case the hat tip goes to Vic Sarjoo.

Christopher Snow reports:

What would you give to make all your veggies taste like chocolate? Would you give $60 to a Canadian molecular gastronomy company called Molecule-R? Because that’s how much it’s asking for the new “Aromafork.”

Molecular gastronomy is a subset of modern cuisine that borrows many of its innovations from the scientific community, but you don’t need to be a scientist to know the tongue is only responsible for a portion of overall taste. It’s your nose that fills in most of the subtleties of a given flavor, and that’s how the Aromafork works.

Each Aromafork—you get four of them—has a notch near the prongs to hold a small, circular diffusing paper. Onto the diffuser you’ll drop one of the 21 included aromas, like coffee, basil, peanut, ginger, smoke, and—yes—chocolate.

Of course the Aromafork isn’t intended solely to mask the flavor of yucky vegetables, but rather to extend the possibilities for creative food pairings. Molecule-R’s website suggests seared tuna with the aroma of truffle, or strawberries with a hint of mint, or eggs with a whiff of cilantro. The only limit is your creativity.

The company’s website is here, and for the pointer I thank Ray Llpez.

Sentences to ponder

by on October 8, 2014 at 11:50 am in Data Source, Economics, Education, Science | Permalink

On average, students in 2014 in every income bracket outscored students in a lower bracket on every section of the test, according to calculations from the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (also known as FairTest), using data provided by the College Board, which administers the test.

Students from the wealthiest families outscored those from the poorest by just shy of 400 points.

From Josh Zumbrun, there is more here.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry

by on October 8, 2014 at 9:45 am in Current Affairs, Science | Permalink

Eric Betzig, one of today’s winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry is a team leader at Janelia Farms the stunning Howard Hughes Medical Institute campus located nearby in Ashburn, VA. I’ve been out to the labs at Janelia a number of times for public talks and seen how Betzig’s work creating much higher resolution microscopes has impacted research in chemistry, biology and brain science. The new microscopes can be used to look at the dynamic operation of live cells. Check out some of the “movies” produced by these techniques. Be sure to scroll down and click right to see the movie of chromosome separation (no it’s not an animiation!).

Betzig has had a very unusual career. After working at Bell Labs for six years he quit science to work in manufacturing, optimizing machines in his father’s factory. After 10 years of that he wanted to get back into science but he hadn’t had any publications for a decade so he knew that he couldn’t just ask for job. Instead, he spent long hours at his cottage thinking of the ideas that would bring him job offers and eventually the Nobel.

Hat tip: Monique van Hoek.

Addendum: Here is Derek Lowe with more on the techniques.

IBM on Tuesday revealed details of how several customers are putting Watson to work, showing that cognitive computing has garnered at least an initial interest among different sorts of businesses. Naming customers also helps other businesses feel more at ease about trying the new technology.

In Australia, the ANZ bank will allow its financial planners to use the Watson Engagement Advisor to help answer customer questions. The idea is that the bank can then better understand what questions are being asked, so they can be answered more quickly.

Also in Australia, Deakin University will use Watson to answer questions from the school’s 50,000 students, by way of Web and mobile interfaces. The questions might include queries about campus activities or where a particular building is located. The service will be drawn from a vast repository of school materials, such as presentations, brochures and online materials.

In Thailand, the Bumrungrad International Hospital will use a Watson service to let its doctors plan the most effective treatments for each cancer patient, based on the patient’s profile as well as on published research. The hospital will leverage research work IBM did with the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to customize Watson for oncology research.

In Cape Town, South Africa, Metropolitan Health medical insurance company will be using Watson to help provide medical advice for the company’s 3 million customers.

Watson is also being used by IBM partners and startups as the basis for new services.

Using Watson, Travelocity co-founder Terry Jones has launched a new service called WayBlazer, which can offer travel advice via a natural language interface. The Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau is testing the WayBlazer app to see if it can increase convention and hotel bookings.

Veterinarian service provider LifeLearn of Guelph, Canada, is using Watson as the basis of a new mobile app called LifeLearn Sofie, which provides a way for animal doctors to research different treatment options. The Animal Medical Center in New York is currently testing that app.

Watson is also being incorporated into other third-party apps serving retailers, IT security and help desk managers, nonprofit fund-raisers, and the health care industry.

There is more information here.

Google’s driverless car may still be a work in progress, but the potential for semiautonomous vehicles on American roads is no longer the stuff of science fiction.

By the end of the decade, a growing number of automakers aim to offer some form of hands-off-the-wheel, feet-off-the-pedals highway driving where a driver can sit back and let the car take control.

The very nature of driving, experts say, will be radically reshaped — and the biggest players in the auto industry are now vying to capture a slice of the revolutionary market they see coming within a matter of years.

From Aaron M. Kessler, there is more here.

Twitter’s science stars

by on October 7, 2014 at 9:48 am in Science, Uncategorized, Web/Tech | Permalink

Science picks a list of the top one hundred, I am flattered to have been selected.  Other designees from economics include Krugman (his bot actually), Sachs, Roubini, Florida, Goolsbee, Basu, Dambisa Moyo, Rodrik, Stiglitz, Wolfers, Jared Bernstein, Dean Baker, Mark Thoma, and Noah Smith.  “Science” is not quite the right word here, but “markers to science” might do, or in my own case perhaps “library science.”

The real news in the list is that economists are overrepresented and other scientists are, on the whole, underrepresented.  They don’t see the returns to it that we do, and if there is more room in our science for persuasion, you should slot that into your Bayesian estimates too.

A US-based cryonics company that stores people’s bodies at ultra-low temperatures in the hope that one day technology will be able to bring them back to life says it has attracted customers from China.

The Alcor Life Extension Foundation, in Arizona, said it had held discussions about setting up a team in China.

Another firm, the Cryonics Institute in the state of Michigan, said it had held similar discussions about operating in China.

Observers said the interest from wealthy Chinese may be because they are worried about bans on burial in favour of cremation in many places.

Traditional Chinese culture rules that the body must be intact to prepare for the afterlife.

Professor Huang Wei , a historian at Sichuan University in Chengdu , said: “Chinese people have always been interested in body preservation and life extension. Cryonics is a new option from the West which will certainly interest those who can afford it.”

There is more here, via the excellent Mark Thorson.

Renee B. Adams, Matti Keloharju, and Samuli Knüpfer have a new paper:

This paper analyzes the role three personal traits — cognitive and non-cognitive ability, and height — play in the market for CEOs. We merge data on the traits of more than one million Swedish males, measured at age 18 in a mandatory military enlistment test, with comprehensive data on their income, education, profession, and service as a CEO of any Swedish company. We find that the traits of large-company CEOs are at par or higher than those of other high-caliber professions. For example, large-company CEOs have about the same cognitive ability, and about one-half of a standard deviation higher non-cognitive ability and height than medical doctors. Their traits compare even more favorably with those of lawyers. The traits contribute to pay in two ways. First, higher-caliber CEOs are assigned to larger companies, which tend to pay more. Second, the traits contribute to pay over and above that driven by firm size. We estimate that 27-58% of the effect of traits on pay comes from CEO’s assignment to larger companies. Our results are consistent with models where the labor market allocates higher-caliber CEOs to more productive positions.

In other words, Swedish CEOs are a pretty impressive lot.  Scott Sumner offers some related remarks on American CEOs.

Hopscotching the globe as Thailand’s prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra repeatedly encountered a distressing problem: bad Thai food.

Too often, she found, the meals she sampled at Thai restaurants abroad were unworthy of the name, too bland to be called genuine Thai cooking. The problem bothered her enough to raise it at a cabinet meeting.

Her political party has since been thrown out of office, in a May military coup, but her initiative in culinary diplomacy lives on.

At a gala dinner at a ritzy Bangkok hotel on Tuesday the government will unveil its project to standardize the art of Thai food — with a robot.

Diplomats and dignitaries have been invited to witness the debut of a machine that its promoters say can scientifically evaluate Thai cuisine, telling the difference, for instance, between a properly prepared green curry with just the right mix of Thai basil, curry paste and fresh coconut cream, and a lame imitation.

Has there ever been a better committee name than this?:

The government-financed Thai Delicious Committee, which oversaw the development of the machine, describes it as “an intelligent robot that measures smell and taste in food ingredients through sensor technology in order to measure taste like a food critic.”

In a country of 67 million people, there are somewhere near the same number of strongly held opinions about Thai cooking. A heated debate here on the merits of a particular nam prik kapi, a spicy chili dip of fermented shrimp paste, lime juice and palm sugar, could easily go on for an hour without coming close to resolution.

The full story is here, excellent throughout, and for the pointer I thank Otis Reid.