Science

Lim had told me that Singapore holds a strategic sand reserve, for emergencies.  It lies somewhere near the area called Bedok, I said.  I spotted it one day as I rode past in a taxi.  The site was strewn with No Trespassing signs, installed by the Housing and Development Board, a government agency.  Fenced off from the public, the giant trapezoidal dunes shone bone-white in the sun and caramel in the shade, as the sand waited to be summoned.

That is from an excellent piece by Samanth Subramanian (NYT), about Singapore, land, and preparing for climate change.  The Singaporean constitution also devotes several pages to outlining how the government will manage its investments.

Here is a query from a loyal MR reader:

If you had net assets in the six figures, and were very concerned about global warming (some combination of wanting a good life for your children, and believing human civilization is valuable over a time horizon longer than your lifetime), how would you invest those assets?

Some thoughts I’ve had:

Invest in renewable energy companies: Extremely hard industry to figure out where your money would have most value added. Not easy to invest in Tesla.

Invest in water utilities: a lot of the problems with water are regulatory rather than investment.

Buy a house in an urban center: NIMBYism means that this likely just crowds out someone else, with unclear impact on carbon reduction

Housing ETF: Might have more political impact than personal purchase but difficult industry to figure out.

Give money to politicians: Does money actually impact political results?

Buy a house with access to water and a lot of guns: Not an ideal solution

Quit your job and become an activist: seems to have been moderately effective in recent years.

What non-complacent answers am I missing? How would your answer change if someone had 5 figure assets? 7 figures? 8 figures?

My answer is pretty simple: invest in fighting indoor air pollution in developing nations.  (Here are further research sources.)  The burning of wood indoors, for instance, leads to pretty significant carbon emissions, as does the burning of charcoal, dung, and plant residue.  These burnings are also harmful to human health, accounting for perhaps as many as four million (!) deaths last year, maybe more.  Some of the problem is inadequate ventilation, but also safer and cleaner gas stoves, among other technologies, represent a better and environmentally friendlier option for many of these households.  Pilot projects in India, Kenya, and China have shown positive results.

The nice thing about this target is that you can save lives even if global warming can’t really be stopped.  And rather than (implicitly or explicitly) taxing poor people in poor countries, you are helping them out.  The broad steps one wishes to take are consistent with these locales become wealthier rather than poorer regions.  Here is a paper on indoor air pollution and carbon emissions in Nigeria.

That said, I do not know which are the best non-profits or commercial projects in these areas — could any of you help out in the comments?

Another option would be to continue to apply pressure to Indonesia to limit the burning of their forests: “Indonesia’s carbon emissions from the 2015 forest fires were bigger than the daily emissions rate of the whole European Union, a study reveals.”  This would involve working through international organizations and perhaps NGOs in Indonesia itself, again your suggestions are welcome.

I will be doing a Conversations with Tyler with him, no public event, podcast only.  Today by the way is his birthday, so send along some good questions as a birthday present to him, and a non-birthday present to me!

Garry’s forthcoming book Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins is just superb, and the podcast will be released around the time of book publication in early May.

Here is one bit, from the rapid fire back-and-forth:

Ezra Klein

The rationality community.

Tyler Cowen

Well, tell me a little more what you mean. You mean Eliezer Yudkowsky?

Ezra Klein

Yeah, I mean Less Wrong, Slate Star Codex. Julia Galef, Robin Hanson. Sometimes Bryan Caplan is grouped in here. The community of people who are frontloading ideas like signaling, cognitive biases, etc.

Tyler Cowen

Well, I enjoy all those sources, and I read them. That’s obviously a kind of endorsement. But I would approve of them much more if they called themselves the irrationality community. Because it is just another kind of religion. A different set of ethoses. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but the notion that this is, like, the true, objective vantage point I find highly objectionable. And that pops up in some of those people more than others. But I think it needs to be realized it’s an extremely culturally specific way of viewing the world, and that’s one of the main things travel can teach you.

There is much more at the link, entertaining throughout, with links to the full podcast as well.

The study, by David Blau and Bruce Weinberg, both professors of economics at Ohio State University, found that the average age of employed scientists increased from 45 in 1993 to nearly 49 in 2010. Scientists aged faster than the U.S. work force in general, and across fields — even newer ones, such as computer and information science. The study includes those natural and social science, health and engineering degrees.

The trend will only continue, with the average scientist’s age increasing by an additional 2.3 years within the near future, without intervention, according to a model included in the study.

I found this sentence illuminating:

Still, McDowell said he wouldn’t want to bring back mandatory retirement for professors.

Here is the study, here is the story, with some useful visuals as well.  As the article notes, even if older scientists are still productive, this can skew or limit the incentives for younger scientists and limit their creativity.

Their conclusion was that there are 25m tonnes of spiders around the world and that, collectively, these arachnids consume between 400m and 800m tonnes of animal prey every year. This puts spiders in the same predatory league as humans as a species, and whales as a group. Each of these consumes, on an annual basis, in the region of 400m tonnes of other animals.

Somewhere between 400m and 500m tonnes is also the total mass of human beings now alive on Earth.

Here is the Economist article.

Who’s complacent?

by on March 19, 2017 at 12:28 pm in Education, History, Philosophy, Science | Permalink

Not Jordan Peterson:

Raised and toughened in the frigid wastelands of Northern Alberta, Jordan Peterson has flown a hammer-head roll in a carbon-fiber stunt plane, piloted a mahogany racing sailboat around Alcatraz Island, explored an Arizona meteorite crater with a group of astronauts, built a Native American Long-House on the upper floor of his Toronto home, and been inducted into the coastal Pacific Kwakwaka’wakw tribe.

He’s been a dishwasher, gas jockey, bartender, short-order cook, beekeeper, oil derrick bit re-tipper, plywood mill labourer and railway line worker. He’s taught mythology to lawyers, doctors and businessmen, consulted for the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Sustainable Development, helped his clinical clients manage depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, and schizophrenia, served as an advisor to senior partners of major Canadian law firms, identified thousands of promising entrepreneurs on six different continents, and lectured extensively in North America and Europe.

With his students and colleagues, Dr Peterson has published more than a hundred scientific papers, transforming the modern understanding of personality, and revolutionized the psychology of religion with his now-classic book, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. As a Harvard professor, he was nominated for the prestigious Levinson Teaching Prize, and is regarded by his current University of Toronto students as one of three truly life-changing teachers.

…Dr. Peterson’s online self-help program, The Self Authoring Suite, featured in O: The Oprah Magazine, CBC radio, and NPR’s national website, has helped tens of thousands of people resolve the problems of their past and radically improve their future.

Here is more, and for the pointer I thank Adam Kazan.

A Patriot missile – usually priced at about $3m (£2.5m) – was used to shoot down a small quadcopter drone, according to a US general.

The strike was made by a US ally, Gen David Perkins told a military symposium.

“That quadcopter that cost 200 bucks from Amazon.com did not stand a chance against a Patriot,” he said.

Patriots are radar-targeted weapons more commonly used to shoot down enemy aircraft and ballistic missiles.

“Now, that worked, they got it, OK, and we love Patriot missiles,” the general said.

Here is more, via Ray Lopez.

Addendum: The Chinese are experimenting with a radio wave gun to bring down drones.

*How Emotions are Made*

by on March 14, 2017 at 12:54 am in Books, Science | Permalink

That is the new book by Lisa Feldman Barrett, and the subtitle is The Secret Life of the Brain.  I am not well-informed in this area, but here were some of my takeaways:

1. The previous dominant view of emotions, sometimes associated with Paul Ekman, suggests that emotions are a natural and pre-programmed response to changes in the environmental.  Imagine a wolf snarling if a potentially hostile animal crosses its path.

2. According to Barrett, the expressions of human emotions are better understood as being socially constructed and filtered through cultural influences: “”Are you saying that in a frustrating, humiliating situation, not everyone will get angry so that their blood boils and their palms sweat and their cheeks flush?”  And my answer is yes, that is exactly what I am saying.” (p.15)  In reality, you are as an individual an active constructor of your emotions.  Imagine winning a big sporting event, and not being sure whether to laugh, cry, scream, jump for joy, pump your fist, or all of the above.  No one of these is the “natural response.”

3. Immigrants eventually acculturate emotionally into their new societies, or at least one hopes: “Our colleague Yulia Chentsova Dutton from Russia says that her cheeks ached for an entire year after moving to the United States because she never smiled so much.” (p.149)

3b. There is also this: “My neighbor Paul Harris, a transplanted emotion researcher from England, has observed how American academics are always excited by scientific puzzles — a high arousal, pleasant feeling — but never curious, perplexed, or confused, which are low arousal and fairly neutral experiences that are more familiar to him.” (p.149)

3c. It can be very hard to read the emotions on faces across cultures, and Barrett is opposed to what she calls “emotional essentialism.”

3d. From her NYT piece: “My lab analyzed over 200 published studies, covering nearly 22,000 test subjects, and found no consistent and specific fingerprints in the body for any emotion. Instead, the body acts in diverse ways that are tied to the situation.”

4. One reason for my interest in this work is that it potentially provides microfoundations for thinking about how “culture” matters for economic and other social outcomes.  It also helps explain the importance of peers for education, and for that matter for religious experience, in the same outlined by William James.  It may help explain Jonathan Haidt-related research results about disgust.  It also provides potential microfoundations for explaining how individuals with different cognitive profiles (autism, Williams and Rett, Down syndrome, etc.), will, for related reasons, process some emotions differently too, although Barrett does not explore this route.

5. The concepts of a “control network” and an “introceptive network” are explained and presented as critical for controlling emotions, and in terms of the broader theory the mind is fundamentally about prediction.  From my outsider point of view, the emphasis on prediction seems a little too strong.  For instance, there may also be a need to make ourselves predictable to others, even if that lowers out own ability to predict.

6. “Affect is not just necessary for wisdom; it’s also irrevocably woven into the fabric of every decision.”  And she refers repeatedly to: “…your inner, loudmouthed, mostly deaf scientist who views the world through affect-colored glasses.”

7. I found the chapter on animals the most problematic for the broader thesis.  It seems to me that the Ekman view really does handle the snarling wolf pretty well and that is a case of emotional essentialism.  Barrett tries to outline how humans are different from other mammals in this regard, but I came away thinking the truth might be a mix of her view and the Ekman view.  It seems to me that some version of emotional essentialism provides an overarching constraint on the social construction of emotions, and furthermore there might be some regulating process at a higher level, mixing in varying proportions of essentialist and social construction features of emotional responses.

My apologies for any errors or misunderstandings in this presentation!

I can say this book is very well-written, it covers material not found in other popular science books, and it comes strongly recommended by Daniel Gilbert.  I asked a friend of mine who researches directly in this area, and she reports that Barrett’s view is in fact taken seriously by other researchers, it has been very influential, and it is has been gaining in popularity.  Make of that what you will.

Here is a very useful interview with the author.  Here is her Northeastern home page.  I recall reading somewhere that she is a big fan of chocolate, but can no longer find that link.  Should I laugh, cry, or shrug my shoulders in response to that failure?

I thank Benjamin Lyons for the pointer to this work.

That is the new book and also free pdf by Joshua Gans.  This is an ideal book of sorts.  He writes it clearly, says what he wants to, ends it, and then gives it away for free.  Here is part of his conclusion:

It is easy at a high level to think about how knowledge could be unbundled, but once a framework is developed, then graduate students who were learning and reading past knowledge would be encouraged to translate their own information into the new framework.  The knowledge could be freed from the bounds of journals without undermining all the curation and attribution work that goes with them.  And at the same time, a searchable database that is open by design would exist not for articles, pages, or PDFs, but for the knowledge itself.

I’m all for moving in this direction, my main worry is to wonder how much difference it will make.  Systems of hierarchy tend to reemerge in some manner or another, no matter what the setting.  And if there is one thing we have learned from the internet, it is that free entry can lead to a greater rather than lesser consolidation of interest.

I recall back in the 1990s, when my colleague Don Lavoie was so excited about organizing science by “linkable hypertext,” in a kind of new knowledge utopia, a Habermasian wet dream.  It was to be an intellectual paradise.  What we got was…the blogosphere.  Still a paradise of sorts!  And free.  But not a scientific paradise.  I’m sure some of you in the comments can explain that to the others perfectly well, whether you are trying to do so or not.

John Komlos has a new paper on this topic, here is the abstract:

Schumpeter’s concept of creative destruction as the engine of capitalist development is well-known. However, that the destructive part of creative destruction is a social and economic cost and therefore biases our estimate of the impact of the innovation on GDP is hardly acknowledged, with the notable exception of Witt (1996.“Innovations, Externalities and the Problem of Economic Progress.” Public Choice 89:113 –30). Admittedly, during the First and Second Industrial Revolutions the magnitude of the destructive component of innovation was no doubt small compared to the net value added to GDP. However, we conjecture that recently the destructive component of innovations has increased relative to the size of the creative component as the new technologies are often creating products which are close substitutes for the ones they replace whose value depreciates substantially in the process of destruction. Consequently, the contribution of recent innovations to GDP is likely upwardly biased. This note calls for further research in innovation economics in order to measure and decompose the effects of innovations into their creative and destructive components in order to provide improved estimates of their contribution to GDP and to employment.

Think of Uber being a relatively close substitute for taxicabs, for instance.  Speculative, as they say, and the paper does not in fact actually demonstrate these conclusions, but at least we should be asking such questions more often.

The obvious equilibrium is that more researchers can download papers from the internet, and thus we expect more papers to be read by a greater number of people.  If lay people enter the calculus, this is almost certainly true.  But what about researchers?  I am not convinced that more reading (of each paper) goes on, or that it should go on.

Most people, including researchers, cannot easily figure out if the main result of a research paper is correct.  That is true all the more as time passes, because the mistakes become less and less transparent.  But they can figure out who can figure out if the paper is right, and sample that opinion.  The internet aids this process greatly.  For instance, it is easier for me to find out what Bob Hall (one of the great paper analysts/commentators of all time) thought of a macro paper, if only by using email.  If I can find out whether or not the paper is true, often I don’t have to read that paper, though I may go through some parts of it.  The internet also gives me access to better summaries of the paper, if only in parts of other papers.

In this sense, researchers may rely on a fairly thin substructure of evaluation, though one of increasing accuracy.  As science progresses, perhaps scientists do/should spend more time honing their research specializations, and less time reading papers they are not expert evaluators for.  They do/should spend more time reading the papers where they are the expert evaluators, but that may mean reading fewer papers overall.

Viewed as a productivity problem, perhaps your read is competing against “further spread of the read and evaluation from the best expert” and is losing.  Efficient criticism is also sometimes winner take all.

I am indebted to Patrick Collison for a conversation on this topic, though of course he is not liable for any of this.  Neither he nor I have read a paper on such matters, however.  Thank goodness.

Neglected big problems

by on February 6, 2017 at 1:01 am in History, Philosophy, Science | Permalink

Relearn Every Generation – We must each relearn many basic life lessons during our individual lifetimes, lessons that millions or billions of others already learned in their previous lifetimes, or that millions or billions of others are currently learning in parallel with us. There seem huge potential gains from finding better ways to learn from our ancestors and colleagues.

Changing World – Early in life we read the world around us and choose life plans and paths matched to that world. During our life the world around us changes, and we make some adaptations to that, but they seem insufficient. For example, we often seek to achieve in ways that were awarded with high status when we were young, to find that our achievements are much less valued by the new world.

Poor Matching – We match people as friends, lovers, spouses, and workers. Our distant ancestors only had a few available options for matches, and we inherited many intuitive mechanisms appropriate for that situation. But we now have a vast world with far more matches possible, and it seems like we don’t use that larger scope very well. We still rely heavily on inherited informal mechanisms. I see so many lonely and otherwise mismatched people.

Varied Commitment – We must each choose how much to commit to our careers, friends, lovers, neighborhoods, brands, etc. We do commit somewhat, but we also switch on occasion. But it isn’t remotely clear that we do this well. We must each match our commitment to the commitment choices of folks around us, and we often lack ways to commit to avoid temptations.

That is from Robin Hanson.

On February 27, I’ll be having a Conversation with Tyler with Malcolm Gladwell.  (Sorry the event is already sold out!  In due time I’ll get you information on the live stream.)  What should I ask him?

I thank you in advance for your intelligent and scintillating suggestions.