Science

The Census Bureau, the authoritative source of health insurance data for more than three decades, is changing its annual survey so thoroughly that it will be difficult to measure the effects of President Obama’s health care law in the next report, due this fall, census officials said.

The changes are intended to improve the accuracy of the survey, being conducted this month in interviews with tens of thousands of households around the country. But the new questions are so different that the findings will not be comparable, the officials said.

An internal Census Bureau document said that the new questionnaire included a “total revision to health insurance questions” and, in a test last year, produced lower estimates of the uninsured. Thus, officials said, it will be difficult to say how much of any change is attributable to the Affordable Care Act and how much to the use of a new survey instrument.

“We are expecting much lower numbers just because of the questions and how they are asked,” said Brett J. O’Hara, chief of the health statistics branch at the Census Bureau.

With the new questions, “it is likely that the Census Bureau will decide that there is a break in series for the health insurance estimates,” says another agency document describing the changes. This “break in trend” will complicate efforts to trace the impact of the Affordable Care Act, it said.

Obviously with a big new law you need new questions too, I suppose, plus the old questions ought not to hang around.  You can read more here.

As a side note, I have been reading far too many blog posts about “numbers enrolled” as a metric of success for Obamacare.  That has never been a good test of the serious criticisms (and defenses) of ACA.

I thank Megan and Garett for the pointers.

Addendum: You should read this update from Vox, though I am not satisfied with the Administration’s response.

I would be surprised if there wasn’t:

Mr. Pilley told me, “The big lesson is to recognize that dogs are smarter than we think, and given time, patience and enough enjoyable reinforcement, we can teach them just about anything.”

It’s true that dogs everywhere are doing things that would have been unimaginable in the Alpo era. Last year, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Working Dog Center trained a team of shepherds and retrievers to sniff out lab samples containing ovarian cancer. Scent hounds are also being used to forecast epileptic seizures and potentially life-threatening infections. A black Labrador from the St. Sugar Cancer-Sniffing Dog Training Center in Chiba, Japan, was accurate 98 percent of the time in picking up early-stage signs of colon cancer. As Mr. Hare, from Duke, said, “I will take a dog smelling my breath over a colonoscopy any day of the week, even if it’s just an experiment.”

From David Hochman, there is more here.

In mathematics at least the answer appears to be yes:

A computer has solved the longstanding Erdős discrepancy problem! Trouble is, we have no idea what it’s talking about — because the solution, which is as long as all of Wikipedia’s pages combined, is far too voluminous for us puny humans to confirm.

A few years ago, the mathematician Steven Strogatz predicted that it wouldn’t be too much longer before computer-assisted solutions to math problems will be beyond human comprehension. Well, we’re pretty much there. In this case, it’s an answer produced by a computer that was hammering away at the Erdős discrepancy problem.

Fortunately,

…it may not be necessary for humans to check it. As Gil Kalai of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, has noted, if another computer program using a different method comes up with the same result, then the proof is probably right.

There is more here, via Gabriel Puliatti on Twitter.

*Particle Fever*

by on April 1, 2014 at 8:25 am in Film, Science | Permalink

That is the new science documentary about the Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs particle, reviewed here.  I enjoyed it very much, and it makes being a scientist seem glamorous, in the good sense of that concept.  The visuals of what goes on at CERN are striking, all the more so for being juxtaposed against mooing Swiss cows.  And reheating a super-cooled magnet, and removing some helium contamination, is not easy to do.

The scientists in this movie seem to think their success will be measured in binary up/down fashion, and yet so far the results are mixed and inconclusive, as if they had been doing macroeconomics.

During one early part of the movie, at a public meeting, a self-proclaimed economist stands up from the audience and asks what is the economic rationale for the project, in front of a group of people drawn mostly from the scientific community.  The man presenting the project responds proudly that such a question does not really need to be answered, and his audience of scientists cheers.  The film audience in Greenwich Village was emboldened by this retort and there was audible positive murmuring, and some apparent scorn for the economist.

I wonder how the same scene would play out if the question concerned high-frequency trading?

In any case, according to most analysts — see, e.g., Bloomberg, “The Future of China’s Power Sector”, Aug. 2013 http://about.bnef.com/white-papers/the-future-of-chinas-power-sector/ — China won’t stop putting in coal plants. Indeed. Bloomberg projects that 343-450 gigawatts of new coal generation will be built in China over the next fifteen years, more than the total capacity of the entire US coal base (300 gigawatts). China’s power needs are so big that even if it installs solar and wind facilities faster than any other nation has ever emplaced them, the nation will still bring online 1 large 500 MW coal plant *per week* from now until 2030.

Even if somehow China *could* build enough solar and wind plants in time, it still would be building coal plants, too. The basic reason is that solar panels in China typically produce <20% of their annual peak capacity (China has few sunny regions) and wind 80% of peak capacity and do it all the time, so to get reliable power you have to build vastly more peak capacity from renewables than coal, and China can’t afford that.

There is more, including more from Mann, here.

A hospital in Pennsylvania will soon begin clinical trials to put gunshot or other accident victims into a state of suspended animation while their organs are repaired. By all measures the people suspended will be dead for hours but with luck many will be brought back to life.

The first step is to flush cold saline through the heart and up to the brain – the areas most vulnerable to low oxygen. To do this, the lower region of their heart must be clamped and a catheter placed into the aorta – the largest artery in the body – to carry the saline. The clamp is later removed so the saline can be artificially pumped around the whole body. It takes about 15 minutes for the patient’s temperature to drop to 10 °C. At this point they will have no blood in their body, no breathing, and no brain activity. They will be clinically dead.

In this state, almost no metabolic reactions happen in the body, so cells can survive without oxygen. Instead, they may be producing energy through what’s called anaerobic glycolysis. At normal body temperatures this can sustain cells for about 2 minutes. At low temperatures, however, glycolysis rates are so low that cells can survive for hours. The patient will be disconnected from all machinery and taken to an operating room where surgeons have up to 2 hours to fix the injury. The saline is then replaced with blood. If the heart does not restart by itself, as it did in the pig trial, the patient is resuscitated. The new blood will heat the body slowly, which should help prevent any reperfusion injuries.

The technique will be tested on 10 people, and the outcome compared with another 10 who met the criteria but who weren’t treated this way because the team wasn’t on hand. The technique will be refined then tested on another 10, says Tisherman, until there are enough results to analyse.

No one knows how long people can be maintained in suspended animation before revival is impossible. We know from accidents where people drown in icy lakes that suspended animation can work for at least half an hour and experiments on pigs suggest no cognitive defects from revived animals suspended for up to an hour, mice have been suspended for up to six hours and roundworms for up to 24 hours.  If the initial trials are successful, further experiments will likely discover ways to lengthen the period of suspended animation in humans and perhaps suggest improvements to current cryonic techniques.

Hat tip: Noah Smith.

Or so I am told:

…those gravitational wave results point to a particularly prolific and potent kind of “inflation” of the early universe, an exponential expansion of the dimensions of space to many times the size of our own cosmos in the first fraction of a second of the Big Bang, some 13.82 billion years ago.

“In most models, if you have inflation, then you have a multiverse,” said Stanford physicist Andrei Linde. Linde, one of cosmological inflation’s inventors, spoke on Monday at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics event where the BICEP2 astrophysics team unveiled the gravitational wave results.

Essentially, in the models favored by the BICEP2 team’s observations, the process that inflates a universe looks just too potent to happen only once; rather, once a Big Bang starts, the process would happen repeatedly and in multiple ways.

There is more here.  How should this change my behavior?  Should I feel more or less regret?  Take more or fewer risks?

For the pointer I thank Ami Evelyn.

In case you didn’t know.

In a fascinating project, researchers at University of California San Diego and the University of Toronto have found that computers are far better than humans at recognizing the difference between real and fake pain in the faces of test subjects. In fact, while humans could tell the difference 55 percent of the time, robots could tell it 85 percent of the time.

There is more here, and I thank Andrew Dresner for the pointer.

*Nature’s Oracle*

by on March 22, 2014 at 6:11 am in Books, Science | Permalink

The author is Ullica Segerstrale and the subtitle of this excellent and fascinating book is The Life and Work of W.D. Hamilton.  Here is one bit:

She had decided to break up with him.  The reason for this…was Bill’s strange idea of marriage.  Bill had told her that they should have no more than two children, of which one child would be his and another her child with another man.  His girlfriend thought about this and realized she could not agree.  She also wondered what lay behind this suggestion.  (She probably did not recognize Bill’s experimental scenario as coming straight out of some book like Out of the Night.)

This book has many excellent lines, including:

There is a famous New Zealand expression: “Anything can be fixed with a number 8 wire.”

And:

Who carries around cyanide?

Robert Trivers makes numerous cameos as well.

The bottom line seems to be this:

By using cutting-edge motion-capture technology, we have been able to precisely break down and analyse specific motion patterns in male dancing that seem to influence women’s perceptions of dance quality. We find that the variability and amplitude of movements in the central body regions (head, neck and trunk) and speed of the right knee movements are especially important in signalling dance quality. A ‘good’ dancer thus displays larger and more variable movements in relation to bending and twisting movements of their head/neck and torso, and faster bending and twisting movements of their right knee. As 80 per cent of individuals are right-footed, greater movements of the right knee in comparison with the left are perhaps to be expected. In comparative research, there is extensive literature on the signalling capacities of movement…Researchers have suggested that females prefer vigorous and skilled males; such cues are derived from male motor performance that provides a signal of his physical condition.
The paper is here (pdf), via Samir Varma.

Or so it seems from one study:

How do the corvids stack up against us? “Crows and ravens performed comparably to primates and children tested in [similar] tasks,” Hillemann said. But one difference between the avian brain and the primate brain may be the way that they consider quality versus quantity. Birds usually aren’t willing to wait in order to increase the amount of food, only to optimize the quality of their reward. “This may be unique to birds,” she adds, “because carrying a large amount of food can be disadvantageous in flight.” On the other hand, a human child can fit two marshmallows in his mouth just as easily as one. While more research is needed, this lends support to the notion that this sort of impulse control is a case of convergent evolution, having evolved independently in the avian lineage and in our primate lineage.

I found the entire post of interest.

Via Michael Makowsky, there is a new and extremely useful paper by Chetty, Saez, and Sandor in “slides” form (pdf).  Their conclusions include these:

1. Short deadlines for referees are extremely effective at increasing speed.

2. Cash incentives can generate significant improvements with salient reminders right before a deadline.

3. Even light social incentives, such as direct prods from an editor, can bring significant benefits.

More broadly, at least in this context cash incentives work, they do not displace social incentives, and attention really matters as do “nudges.”

Selfish Gene Cafe.

For the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson, citing David Dobbs.

In Japan, the Yamaha Motor Company’s RMAX helicopter drones have been spraying crops for 20 years. The radio-controlled drones weighing 140 pounds are cheaper than hiring a plane and are able to more precisely apply fertilizers and pesticides. They fly closer to the ground and their backwash enables the spray to reach the underside of leaves.

The helicopters went into use five years ago in South Korea, and last year in Australia.

Television networks use drones to cover cricket matches in Australia. Zookal, a Sydney company that rents textbooks to college students, plans to begin delivering books via drones later this year. The United Arab Emirates has a project underway to see if government documents like driver’s licenses, identity cards and permits can be delivered using small drones.

In the United Kingdom, energy companies use drones to check the undersides of oil platforms for corrosion and repairs, and real estate agents use them to shoot videos of pricey properties. In a publicity stunt last June, a Domino’s Pizza franchise posted a YouTube video of a “DomiCopter” drone flying over fields, trees, and homes to deliver two pizzas.

But when Lakemaid Beer tried to use a drone to deliver six-packs to ice fishermen on a frozen lake in Minnesota, the FAA grounded the “brewskis.”

Andreas Raptopoulous, CEO of Matternet in Menlo Park, Calif., predicts that in the near term, there will be more extensive use of drones in impoverished countries than in wealthier nations such as the U.S.

He sees a market for drones to deliver medicines and other critical, small packaged goods to the 1 billion people around the globe who don’t have year-round access to roads.

There is more here, via Claire Morgan.