Science

“Folding Beijing”

by on December 16, 2016 at 2:40 am in Books, Economics, Science | Permalink

It is an extraordinary short story, one of the best things I’ve read all year, and it’s proof positive of how rapidly China is becoming a society supercharged with creativity.  I am pleased to see it received a Hugo Award for best novelette.

The author is Hao Jingfang and it’s on-line here.  Did you know she is a macroeconomics researcher at a quango in Beijing?  One key part of the plot and premise revolves around macroeconomic theory, here is an excerpt:

“Hard to say.” Lao Ge sipped the baijiu and let out a burp. “I suspect not. You have to understand why they went with manual processing in the first place. Back then, the situation here was similar to Europe at the end of the twentieth century. The economy was growing, but so was unemployment. Printing money didn’t solve the problem. The economy refused to obey the Phillips curve.”

He saw that Lao Dao looked completely lost, and laughed. “Never mind. You wouldn’t understand these things anyway.”

I cannot excerpt more without giving away spoilers.  Definitely recommended, and for the pointer I thank Eva.

Exploration and exploitation of Victorian science in Darwin’s reading notebooks.

Murdock J, Allen C, and DeDeo S

Abstract

Search in an environment with an uncertain distribution of resources involves a trade-off between exploitation of past discoveries and further exploration. This extends to information foraging, where a knowledge-seeker shifts between reading in depth and studying new domains. To study this decision-making process, we examine the reading choices made by one of the most celebrated scientists of the modern era: Charles Darwin. From the full-text of books listed in his chronologically-organized reading journals, we generate topic models to quantify his local (text-to-text) and global (text-to-past) reading decisions using Kullback-Liebler Divergence, a cognitively-validated, information-theoretic measure of relative surprise. Rather than a pattern of surprise-minimization, corresponding to a pure exploitation strategy, Darwin’s behavior shifts from early exploitation to later exploration, seeking unusually high levels of cognitive surprise relative to previous eras. These shifts, detected by an unsupervised Bayesian model, correlate with major intellectual epochs of his career as identified both by qualitative scholarship and Darwin’s own self-commentary. Our methods allow us to compare his consumption of texts with their publication order. We find Darwin’s consumption more exploratory than the culture’s production, suggesting that underneath gradual societal changes are the explorations of individual synthesis and discovery. Our quantitative methods advance the study of cognitive search through a framework for testing interactions between individual and collective behavior and between short- and long-term consumption choices. This novel application of topic modeling to characterize individual reading complements widespread studies of collective scientific behavior.

Here you will find the transcript, podcast, and video of the chat, Joe of course was in top form.  In addition to a wide-ranging conversation on cultural and social evolution, we touched on topics such as Star Trek, Hayek’s atavism theory, what he learned from the Mapuche, the pleasures of cooking in coconut milk, why WEIRD matters, whether Neanderthals were smarter than humans, and whether Joe is a conservative after all.  Here is one bit:

COWEN: The Flynn effect in the short run puzzles me more than in the long run. If I compare today to the 18th century, I can see where the difference might be. But in many countries, it seems the Flynn effect hasn’t stopped. Nutritional gains probably are over.

The environment — smartphones are newer than the Flynn effect, but it doesn’t seem to be changing now compared to a generation ago. They both seem quite complex. We’ve had TV for a while. People have books, market society. What exactly is the difference over the last generation in the short run?

HENRICH: It’s a cultural-evolutionary treadmill. One place where you see this is the complexity of television shows. Now, you have an ensemble cast and 20 different plots going on. You’ve got to track all these different plots. That wasn’t the television of the 1950s. It was one plot, one thing after another. Simple. The whole world is getting more complex, at least in terms of your need for analytic thinking.

COWEN: Some of that in your view is the supply-side effect. It’s not that we got smarter and they made TV better, it’s also they made TV better and that made some of us smarter.

HENRICH: Coevolutionary.

COWEN: Coevolutionary. This is going to make you out to be quite an optimist, then, because TV is going to get better and better. We’re just going to keep on getting smarter.

HENRICH: Yeah, of course.

And:

COWEN: You’re an anthropologist. You’ve spent a lot of time with economists — coauthored, worked with Paul Romer, Colin Camerer, others. As an anthropologist, what do you find strange about the tribe known as econ? [laughs]

HENRICH: I had a real opportunity. I was very fortunate in my career to be a professor of psychology and a professor of economics at the same time but to be neither in some deep sense. I would get to go back and forth from seminars in economics and psychology.

In economics, there’s this really competitive culture. The way I like to describe it: If you’re giving a seminar in economics, the crowd — everybody’s trying to show who’s the smartest guy in the room. Just on your first slide, someone will raise their hand. (I’m like, I haven’t said anything yet!) Then they’ll try to ask the killer question which undercuts your whole talk so that they can get you right at the beginning.

[laughter]

HENRICH: Whereas psychologists, they’ll sit quietly. They watch your talk. You go through your whole PowerPoint. You probably touched a lot of different research projects.

Then there’ll be question time; at first no hands will go up. Then someone will be like, “I got a question.” Then they say, “I just have one small question. I mean, it was a great talk and this is just a very minor thing.”

Then it could be a killer question at that point when they’ve done the preface. It’s a very strong cultural difference between the econ tribe and the psychology tribe.

I’ve always wanted to write an ethnography: My Life among Two Strange Tribes: The Psychologists and the Economists.

Do read, hear, or watch the whole thing.

Here you can order Joe’s book The Secret of our Success: How Culture is Driving Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making us Smarter.

bugs

“By far the best way to eat mealworms” is another insight on tap.

Here is the AtlasObscura story, via the excellent Mark Thorson.

Stumped for solutions to hundreds of industrial and technical problems, businesses and governments alike are turning the search for innovative ideas into prize-worthy puzzles that capitalize on the ingenuity of the crowd.

At a time when the pace of innovation seems to be slowing, prize sponsors hope that today’s hackers and makers can step into the breach and jump-start progress in a way that today’s research institutions—with their many constituencies and restraints—are struggling to do.

Improve smartphone voice recognition? There’s a $10,000 prize for that. Design a delivery drone? $50,000. Extend the human lifespan? Venture capitalist Dr. Joon Yun offers the $1 million Palo Alto Longevity Prizes. Diagnose antibiotic resistance? That’s worth $20 million. And if anyone can profitably repurpose the carbon emissions involved in global warming, there are prizes totaling $55 million in the offing.

“You name it, there is a prize for it,” said Karim Lakhani at the Harvard Business School’s Crowd Innovation Lab, who has helped run 650 innovation contests in the past six years.

In addition, crowdsourcing companies such as InnoCentive Inc., NineSigma, and Kaggle have posted hundreds of these lucrative research contests on behalf of corporate and government clients, offering cash prizes up to $1 million for practical problems in industrial chemistry, remote sensing, plant genetics and dozens of other technical disciplines. Among them, the three companies can draw on the expertise of two million freelance researchers who have registered for access to the prize challenges.

All told, more than 30,000 significant prizes are awarded every year worth $2 billion and growing, according to McKinsey & Co. The total value of purses from the 219 largest prizes has tripled in the past 10 years. Not only are there more prizes than ever, but nearly 80% of all the major new prizes announced since 1991 are designed to spur specific innovations.

Yet here is a cautionary note:

To be sure, there is little evidence that crowdsourcing competitions have significantly altered the innovation landscape yet. “Prizes are important, but they are not the ultimate incentive for innovation” said Luciano Kay, a research fellow at the University of California at Santa Barbara who studies incentive prizes. “They are not big enough to change how industry works in general.”

Here is the full Robert Lee Hotz WSJ article.  Here are previous MR posts on prizes.  Here is an MRU video on prizes.  Here is my 2007 talk at Google on prizes as a means of funding innovation.

For the pointer I thank Ray Lopez.

Animal rights will be the big social revolution of the 21st century. Most people have a vague feeling that factory farms aren’t quite ethical. But few people are willing to give up meat so such feelings are suppressed because acknowledging them would only make one feel guilty not just. Once the costs of giving up meat fall, however, vegetarianism will spread like a prairie wildfire changing eating habits, the use of farm land, and the science and economics of climate change.

Lab grown or cultured meat is improving but so is the science of veggie burgers. Beyond Meat has sold a very successful frozen “chicken” strip since 2013 and their non-frozen burger patties are just now seeing widespread distribution in the meat aisle at Whole Foods. Beyond Meat extracts protein from peas and then combines it with other vegetable elements under heating, cooling and pressure to realign the proteins in a way that simulates the architecture of beef.

I picked up at two-pack on the weekend. Beyond Meat burgers look and cook like meat. But what about the taste?

beyondbeef1

The taste is excellent. The burger has a slightly smokey taste, not exactly like beef but like meat. If you had never tasted a buffalo burger before and I told you that this was a buffalo burger you would have no reason to doubt me. A little sauce and salt and pepper and this is a very good-tasting burger not a sacrifice for morality.

The price is currently more than beef, $6 for two patties but that’s Whole Foods expensive not out of reach expensive. I will buy more.

The revolution has begun.

beyondbeef2

The second picture is the BuzzFeed version. My burger wasn’t quite so artfully arranged but was still delicious and I attest to the overall accuracy.

Addendum: 20 g protein: 6 g carb: 22g fat (5g saturated).

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…

harvesters

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.