Science

The great Tim Urban of Wait but Why has a deep dive into Why Cryonics Makes Sense.

A key argument:

Here’s an interesting way to think about it: Imagine a patient arriving in an ambulance to Hospital A, a typical modern hospital. The patient’s heart stopped 15 minutes before the EMTs arrived and he is immediately pronounced dead at the hospital. What if, though, the doctors at Hospital A learned that Hospital B across the street had developed a radical new technology that could revive a patient anytime within 60 minutes after cardiac arrest with no long-term damage? What would the people at Hospital A do?

Of course, they would rush the patient across the street to Hospital B to save him. If Hospital B did save the patient, then by definition the patient wouldn’t actually have been dead in Hospital A, just pronounced deadbecause Hospital A viewed him as entirely and without exception doomed.

What cryonicists suggest is that in many cases where today a patient is pronounced dead, they’re not dead but rather doomed, and that there is a Hospital B that can save the day—but instead of being in a different place, it’s in a different time. It’s in the future.

Kurzgesagt and CGP Grey also have a new two part video series on why we should stop aging forever. The first one is below. The second is here.

Am I seeing a trend? I hope so. To quote CGP Grey:

Humans must discard the learned helplessness that the reaper and their own brains have imposed on them.

*The Fate of Rome*

by on October 19, 2017 at 11:21 am in Books, History, Medicine, Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

That is the new and very important book by Kyle Harper, with the subtitle Climate, Disease, & the End of an Empire.  I am just reading through this now, but it appears to be an significant revision of our views on the decline of Rome.  p.21 offers a capsule summary, which I will summarize in turn:

1. During the reign of Marcus Aurelius, a pandemic “interrupted the economic and demographic expansion” of the empire.

2. In the middle of the third century, a mix of drought, pestilence, and political challenge “led to the sudden disintegration of the empire.”  The empire however was willfully rebuilt, with a new emperor, new system of government, and in due time a new religion.

3. The coherence of this new empire was broken in the late fourth and early fifth centuries.  “The entire weight of the Eurasian steppe seemed to lean, in new and unsustainable ways, against the edifice of Roman power…and…the western half of the empire buckled.”

4. In the east there was a resurgent Roman Empire, but this was “violently halted by one of the worst environmental catastrophes in recorded history — the double blow of bubonic plague and a little ice age.”

Here is a key passage from the book:

The centuries of later Roman history might be considered the age of pandemic disease.  Three times the empire was rocked by mortality events with stunning geographical reach.  In AD 165 an event known as the Antonine Plague, probably caused by smallpox, erupted.  In AD 249, an uncertain pathogen swept the territories of Roman rule.  And in AD 541, the first great pandemic of Yersinia pestis, the agent that causes bubonic plague, arrived and lingered for over two hundreds years.  the magnitude of these biological catastrophes is almost incomprehensible.

Here is the book on Amazon.  Here is Kyle Harper on Twitter.  Here is Harper on scholar.google.com; he is also Provost at the University of Oklahoma.

I do not feel I can assess the veracity of this thesis, but it does seem to be intelligently and reasonably argued.

Here is the transcript and podcast, here is the summary introduction:

She joins Tyler for a conversation covering the full range of her curiosity, including fear, acclimating to grossness, chatting with the dead, freezing one’s head, why bedpans can kill you, sex robots, Freud, thinking like an astronaut, the proper way to eat a fry, and why there’s a Medicare reimbursement code for maggots.

Here are a few excerpts:

ROACH: It is never uncomfortable. People sometimes say, “The questions that you ask people, is it an awkward interview? When you went to Avenal State Prison for the rectum chapter of Gulp, and you, talking to this convicted murderer about using his rectum to smuggle cellphones and other things, was that not a very awkward conversation to have?”

A little bit, but then you have to keep in mind, this is somebody for whom hooping, as it’s called, is . . . everybody does it. It’s just something that you do; it’s everyday to him. Like for a sex researcher, talking about orgasm is like talking about tire rotation for a car mechanic.

And:

COWEN: To do a whirlwind tour of some of your books, you have a book on corpses. If you could chat with the dead, what would you ask them?

ROACH: Oh, if I could chat with the dead. Are we assuming the personality or the body?

COWEN: Well, both.

ROACH: The corpse?

COWEN: The corpse.

ROACH: Oh, is this a research corpse or . . .

COWEN: It’s a research corpse.

ROACH: …So what I’d say to the cadaver is, “Is this embarrassing for you? Are you OK with this? Are they treating you respectfully? Do you wish you had some clothes on?”

And:

COWEN: Why do only 18 percent of people who are in the position to have a life-after-death experience actually have one? What’s your view on that?

ROACH: The trouble seems to be remembering the near-death experience.

And:

COWEN: Why are bedpans dangerous?

There is much, much more at the link.  Jonathan Swift, Elvis, Adam Smith, and Jeff Sachs all make appearances, in addition to Catholicism, bee larvae, Mozambique, whether people know what they really want in sex, and whether it should be legal to harvest fresh road kill in Oregon.

From my email, by Jason N. Doctor:

You provide a good perspective on Blade Runner 2049.  In addition to the biblical references and themes, I was also impressed by the psychology and philosophy of mind references:

1)  After every event where he eliminates a replicant, “K” must take a cognitive interference test similar to those used most recently by Sendhil Mullianathan and Eldar Shafir to study the effects of economic scarcity on cognition–but to test if killing a replicant heightens his emotions by perhaps putting him in a moral quandary.

2) On the door to his apartment, some graffiti reads “F*** off Skinner”.  This seems odd in its prominence.  B.F. Skinner developed, to an extreme, John Watson’s radical suggestion that behavior does not have mental states. Skinner’s ideas shutout discussions of whether or not machines could support mental states. Of course, rational economics by similar methodologic scruple ignores mental states.

3)  The movie promotes the idea that there is no computation without representation.  Ana de Armis’ character formulates mental symbols in her relationship with K and behaves in accordance with interdefined internal states (we can’t predict some of her actions directly from stimuli). We are led to believe that she qualitatively experiences real love (though we cannot know) .  In irony, one of these mental symbols involves a longing to be a “real girl” by means that are unrelated to the mind-body problem.  She wants to being taken off the network, so that she can be in one place, just as are neurophysiologic organisms.

>All in all, the movie legitimizes the notion of (hardware agnostic) mental representations and takes a fairly hard stance in opposition to behaviorist constraints on psychological explanations. So it is a critique of behavioral psychology and indirectly rational economics.

I am not sure I trust any TFP measures (what if innovation is simply embodied in investment?), but this paper by Gerben Bakker, Nicholas Crafts, and Pieter Woltjer is worth a ponder:

We develop new aggregate and sectoral Total Factor Productivity (TFP) estimates for the United States between 1899 and 1941 through better coverage of sectors and better-measured labor quality, and find TFP-growth was lower than previously thought, broadly based across sectors, and strongly variant intertemporally. We then test and reject three prominent claims. First, the 1930s did not have the highest TFP-growth of the twentieth century. Second, TFP-growth was not predominantly caused by four ‘great inventions’. Third, TFP-growth was not driven indirectly by spillovers from great inventions such as electricity. Instead, the creative-destruction -friendly American innovation system was the main productivity driver.

For the pointer I thank David Levey.

He has a forthcoming JET paper with Jorge Lemus, here is the abstract:

We construct a tractable general model of the direction of innovation. Competition leads firms to pursue inefficient research lines, because firms both race toward easy projects and do not fully appropriate the value of their inventions. This dual distortion will imply that any directionally efficient policy must condition on the properties of hypothetical inventions which are not discovered in equilibrium, hence common R&D policies like patents and prizes generate suboptimal innovation direction and may even generate lower welfare than laissez faire. We apply this theory to radical versus incremental innovation, patent pools, and the effect of trade on R&D.

Here is a slightly different version of the abstract, along with other research papers.  Here is Kevin on travel.  Kevin is at the University of Toronto, and also is author of the excellent blog A Fine Theorem.

Here is Kevin’s reading list on innovation, recommended.

This is a prize that is easy to understand.  It is a prize for behavioral economics, for the ongoing importance of psychology in economic decision-making, and for “Nudge,” his famous and also bestselliing book co-authored with Cass Sunstein.

Here are previous MR posts on Thaler, we’ve already covered a great deal of his research.  Here is Thaler on Twitter.  Here is Thaler on scholar.google.com.  Here is the Nobel press release, with a variety of excellent accompanying essays and materials.  Here is Cass Sunstein’s overview of Thaler’s work.

Perhaps unknown to many, Thaler’s most heavily cited piece is on whether the stock market overreacts.  He says yes this is possible for psychological reasons, and this article also uncovered some of the key evidence in favor of the now-vanquished “January effect” in stock returns, namely that for a while the market did very very well in the month of January.  (Once discovered the effect went away.)  Another excellent Thaler piece on finance is this one with Shleifer and Lee, on why closed end mutual funds sell at divergences from their true asset values.  This too likely has something to do with market psychology and sentiment, as the same “asset package,” in two separate and non-arbitrageable markets, can sell for quite different prices, sometimes premia but usually discounts.  This was one early and relative influential critique of the efficient markets hypothesis.

Another classic early Thaler piece is on a phenomenon known as “mental accounting,” for instance you might treat a dollar in your pocket as different from a dollar in your bank account.  Or earned money may be treated different from money you just chanced upon, or won that morning in the stock market.  This has significant implications for predicting consumer decisions concerning saving and spending; in particular, economists cannot simply measure income but must consider where the money came from and how it is perceived by consumers, namely how they are performing their mental accounting of the funds.  Have you ever gone on a vacation with a notion that you would spend so much money, and then treated all expenditures within that range as essentially already decided?  The initial piece on this topic was published in a marketing journal and it has funny terminology, a sign of how far from the mainstream this work once was.  It is nonetheless a brilliant piece.  Here is more Thaler on mental accounting.

Thaler, with Kahneman and Knetsch, was a major force behind discovering and measuring the so-called “endowment effect.”  Once you have something, you value it much more!  Maybe three or four times as much, possibly more than that.  It makes policy evaluation difficult, because as economists we are not sure how much to privilege the status quo.  Should we measure “willingness to pay” — what people are willing to pay for what they don’t already have?  Or “willingness to be paid” — namely how eager people are to give up what they already possess?  The latter magnitude will lead to much higher valuations for the assets in question.  This by the way helps explain status quo bias in politics and other spheres of life.  People value something much more highly once they view it as theirs.

This phenomenon also makes the Coase theorem tricky because the final allocation of resources may depend quite significantly on how the initial property rights are assigned, even when the initial wealth effect from such an allocation may appear to be quite small.  See this Thaler piece with Knetsch.  It’s not just that you assign property rights and let people trade, but rather how you assign the rights up front will create an endowment effect and thus significantly influence the final bargain that is struck.

With Jolls and Sunstein, here is Thaler on a behavioral approach to law and economics, a long survey but also constructive piece that became a major trend and has shaped law and economics for decades.  He has done plenty and had a truly far-ranging impact, not just in one or two narrow fields.

Thaler’s “Nudge” idea, developed in conjunction with Cass Sunstein over the course of a major book and some articles, has led policymakers all over the world to focus on “choice architecture” in designing better systems, the UK even setting up a “Nudge Unit.”  For instance, one way to encourage savings is to set up pension systems for employees so that the maximum contribution is the default, rather than an active choice people must make.  This is sometimes referred to as a form of “soft” or “libertarian paternalism,” since choice is still present.  Here is Thaler responding to some libertarian critiques of the nudge idea.

I first encountered Thaler’s work in graduate school, in the mid-1980s, in particular some of his pieces in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization; here is his early 1980 manifesto on how to think about consumer choice.  I thought “this is great stuff,” and I gobbled it up, as it was pretty consistent with some of what I was imbibing from Thomas Schelling, in particular Thaler’s 1981 piece with Shefrin on the economics of self-control, a foundation for many later discussions of paternalism.  I also thought “a shame this work isn’t going to become mainstream,” because at the time it wasn’t.  It was seen as odd, under-demonstrated, and often it wasn’t in top journals.  For some time Thaler taught at Cornell, a very good school but not a top top school of the kind where many Laureates might teach, such as Harvard or Chicago or MIT.  Many people were surprised when finally he received an offer from the University of Chicago Business School, noting of course this was not the economics department.  Obviously this Prize is a sign that Thaler truly has arrived at the very high levels of recognition, and I would note Thaler has been pegged as one of the favorites at least since 2010 or so.  When Daniel Kahneman won some while ago and Thaler didn’t, many people thought “ah, that is it” because many of Thaler’s most famous pieces were written with Kahneman.  Yet as time passed it became clear that Thaler’s work was holding up and spreading far and wide in influence, and he moved into a position of being a clear favorite to win.

Here is Thaler’s book on the making of behavioral economics.  Excerpt:

…my thesis advisor, Sherwin Rosen, gave the following as an assessment of my career as a graduate student: “We did not expect much of him.”

Very lately Thaler on Twitter has been making some critical remarks about price gouging, suggesting we also must take into account what customers perceive as fair.  Here is his earlier piece about fairness constraints on profit-seeking, still a classic.

Thaler has written many columns for The New York Times, here is one on boosting access to health care.  Here are many more of them.  Here is “Unless you are Spock, Irrelevant Things Matter for Investment Behavior.”  Here is Thaler on making good citizenship fun.  He also told us that trading up in the NFL draft isn’t worth it.

Thaler is underrated as a policy economist, here is an excellent NYT piece on the “public option” for health insurance, excerpt: “…instead of arguing about whether to have a public option, argue about the ground rules.”

His last pre-Nobel tweet was: “The web site is using lots of . Advertised rates include cashing in of “points”, cancellation policies not salient if bad…”

A well-deserved prize and one that is relatively easy to explain, and most of Thaler’s works are easy to read even if you are not an economist.  I would stress that Thaler has done more than even many of his fans may realize.

Google is the first major tech company to build the Babel fish.

The search company, which is now making a slew of its own hardware products, announced the Google Pixel Buds at a San Francisco event today (Oct. 4). The earbuds connect wirelessly with Google’s latest smartphones, but more importantly, they’re able to access Google Assistant, the company’s virtual personal concierge, which launched exactly a year ago. Through this software, Google claims the earbuds can translate 40 spoken languages nearly in real time—or at least, fast enough to hold a conversation.

Here is the story at Quartz.  It’s funny how economists used to come up with theories that platform monopolies would stifle innovation…

Another Cost of Global Warming

by on September 22, 2017 at 9:52 am in Economics, Law, Science | Permalink

This paper documents a small but systematic bias in the patent evaluation system at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO): external weather variations affect the allowance or rejection of patent applications. I examine 8.8 million reject/allow decisions from 3.5 million patent applications to the USPTO between 2001 and 2014, and find that on unusually warm days patent allowance rates are higher and final rejection rates are lower than on cold days. I also find that on cloudy days, final rejection rates are lower than on clear days. I show that these effects constitute a decision-making bias which exists even after controlling for sorting effects, controlling for applicant-level, application-level, primary class-level, art unit-level, and examiner- level characteristics. The bias even exists after controlling for the quality of the patent applications. While theoretically interesting, I also note that the effect sizes are relatively modest and may not require policy changes from the USPTO. Yet, the results are strong enough to provide a potentially useful instrumental variable for future innovation research.

From a paper by Balázs Kovács, here. Hat tip Kevin Lewis.

They used to say this couldn’t be done:

We construct genomic predictors for heritable and extremely complex human quantitative traits (height, heel bone density, and educational attainment) using modern methods in high dimensional statistics (i.e., machine learning). Replication tests show that these predictors capture, respectively, ~40, 20, and 9 percent of total variance for the three traits. For example, predicted heights correlate ~0.65 with actual height; actual heights of most individuals in validation samples are within a few cm of the prediction. The variance captured for height is comparable to the estimated SNP heritability from GCTA (GREML) analysis, and seems to be close to its asymptotic value (i.e., as sample size goes to infinity), suggesting that we have captured most of the heritability for the SNPs used. Thus, our results resolve the common SNP portion of the “missing heritability” problem – i.e., the gap between prediction R-squared and SNP heritability. The ~20k activated SNPs in our height predictor reveal the genetic architecture of human height, at least for common SNPs. Our primary dataset is the UK Biobank cohort, comprised of almost 500k individual genotypes with multiple phenotypes. We also use other datasets and SNPs found in earlier GWAS for out-of-sample validation of our results.

While I don’t find “within a few centimeters” to be especially impressive, the question is still “what’s next?”

The authors on the paper are Louis Lello, Steven G Avery, Laurent Tellier, Ana Vazquez, Gustavo de los Campos, and Stephen D. H. Hsu.

Via Ben Schmidt, the term becomes common only in the 1970s:

I’d like to see a detailed look at actual journal practices, but my personal sense is that editorial review was the norm until fairly recently, not review by a team of outside referees.  In 1956, for instance, the American Historical Review asked for only one submission copy, and it seems the same was true as late as 1970.  I doubt they made the photocopies themselves. Schmidt seems to suggest that the practices of government funders nudged the academic professions into more formal peer review with multiple referee reports.

Further research is needed (how about we ask some really old people?), at least if peer review decides it is worthy of publication.  Frankly I suspect such work would stand a better chance under editorial review.

In the meantime, here is a tweet from the I didn’t know she was on Twitter Judy Chevalier:

I have just produced a 28-page “responses to reviewer and editor questions” for a 39-page paper.

I’d rather have another paper from Judy.

By the way, scientific papers are getting less readable.

Highlights

Individuals experiencing extreme weather activity more likely to support climate adaptation policy.

Effect of extreme weather activity on opinion is modest and not consistent across specific adaptation policies.

Effect of extreme weather activity on opinion diminishes over time.

Here is the paper, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Social insect colonies are highly successful, self-organized complex systems. Surprisingly however, most social insect colonies contain large numbers of highly inactive workers. Although this may seem inefficient, it may be that inactive workers actually contribute to colony function. Indeed, the most commonly proposed explanation for inactive workers is that they form a ‘reserve’ labor force that becomes active when needed, thus helping mitigate the effects of colony workload fluctuations or worker loss. Thus, it may be that inactive workers facilitate colony flexibility and resilience. However, this idea has not been empirically confirmed. Here we test whether colonies of Temnothorax rugatulus ants replace highly active (spending large proportions of time on specific tasks) or highly inactive (spending large proportions of time completely immobile) workers when they are experimentally removed. We show that colonies maintained pre-removal activity levels even after active workers were removed, and that previously inactive workers became active subsequent to the removal of active workers. Conversely, when inactive workers were removed, inactivity levels decreased and remained lower post-removal. Thus, colonies seem to have mechanisms for maintaining a certain number of active workers, but not a set number of inactive workers. The rapid replacement (within 1 week) of active workers suggests that the tasks they perform, mainly foraging and brood care, are necessary for colony function on short timescales. Conversely, the lack of replacement of inactive workers even 2 weeks after their removal suggests that any potential functions they have, including being a ‘reserve’, are less important, or auxiliary, and do not need immediate recovery. Thus, inactive workers act as a reserve labor force and may still play a role as food stores for the colony, but a role in facilitating colony-wide communication is unlikely. Our results are consistent with the often cited, but never yet empirically supported hypothesis that inactive workers act as a pool of ‘reserve’ labor that may allow colonies to quickly take advantage of novel resources and to mitigate worker loss.

That is by Daniel Charbonneau, Takao Sasaki, and Anna Dornhaus, file under “speculative.”  For the pointer I thank Eric Durbrow.

There is now another paper on this theme by Nicholas Bloom, Charles I. Jones, John Van Reenen, and Michael Webb, abstract:

In many growth models, economic growth arises from people creating ideas, and the long-run growth rate is the product of two terms: the effective number of researchers and their research productivity. We present a wide range of evidence from various industries, products, and firms showing that research effort is rising substantially while research productivity is declining sharply. A good example is Moore’s Law. The number of researchers required today to achieve the famous doubling every two years of the density of computer chips is more than 18 times larger than the number required in the early 1970s. Across a broad range of case studies at various levels of (dis)aggregation, we find that ideas — and in particular the exponential growth they imply — are getting harder and harder to find. Exponential growth results from the large increases in research effort that offset its declining productivity.

Here is the NBER link.

I say no, but some disagree:

There hasn’t been an innovation in the world of chocolate since the white variant was introduced in 1930, which is fine because — in the immortal words of Cogsworth in “Beauty and the Beast” — if ain’t baroque, don’t fix it.

But still, we’d never turn away a new kind of creamy, chocolate-y thing to munch on while we binge-watch Netflix.

And thanks to some Swiss chocolate scientists over at Barry Callebaut — the world’s leading manufacturer of the good stuff, producing 1.8 million tons of cocoa every year and with a revenue of almost $10 billion — that’s exactly what we’re getting. A brand new chocolate flavor called Ruby, developed from the Ruby Cocoa bean, colored a pleasingly millennial pink hue and that tastes like sweet, sweet berries despite having no added color or flavoring.

“Ruby chocolate is the fourth type of chocolate [after milk, white and dark] and is an intense sensorial delight,” a spokesperson for Barry Callebaut said after launching the chocolate to a panel of experts in China.

Here is the (noisy) link, via the excellent Samir Varma.