No Font of Wisdom

by on May 3, 2015 at 7:49 am in Science | Permalink

You will not understand this post better just because it is hard to read. Small n study magnified by Gladwell, Kahneman et al. doesn’t replicate. ∑Àgain.

More here.

Hat tip: Nathaniel Bechhofer

From Robert Trivers. Here is Trivers on William Hamilton:

Certainly one of the most creative minds I have ever met in biology. I still remember the day a graduate student came running down the hall saying “Have you heard Hamilton thinks that bacteria use clouds for dispersal? As quick as you can say “Bill Hamilton”, I asked “Has he shown how the bacteria get the rain to fall where they want it to?” And indeed his idea humbled me because ever since I had been coming to Jamaica I had heard rural people tell me “trees draw rain” as in, don’t cut them down, and I had thought to myself you poor benighted souls, you have the correlation right but causality wrong—naturally, where it rains more, trees are more apt to grow. Now Bill suggested they Jamaicans may well have had it right all along—lower temperatures over wooded areas could itself be a useful signal.

Robot sentences to ponder

by on April 26, 2015 at 4:00 pm in Economics, Science | Permalink

Harnessing high-powered computing, color sensors and small metal baskets attached to the robotic arms, the machine gently plucked ripe strawberries from below deep-green leaves, while mostly ignoring unripe fruit nearby.

Such tasks have long required the trained discernment and backbreaking effort of tens of thousands of relatively low-paid workers. But technological advances are making it possible for robots to handle the job, just as a shrinking supply of available fruit pickers has made the technology more financially attractive.

…Machines are doing more than picking produce. Altman Specialty Plants Inc., one of the country’s largest nurseries, has been using eight, squat robots for the past two years to ferry more than 1.2 million potted roses and other plants to new rows as they grow larger. The $25,000, self-driving machines have occasionally gotten stuck in mud, but they freed eight workers for other jobs and ultimately paid for themselves in 18 months, said Becky Drumright, Altman’s marketing director.

And we used to say that gardening was one of the hardest jobs to automate.  By Ilan Brat, there is more here.

Claims about embryos

by on April 24, 2015 at 12:29 am in Current Affairs, Philosophy, Science | Permalink

A pressing question, said Rudolf Jaenisch, an M.I.T. biology professor, is why anyone would want to edit the genes of human embryos in order to prevent disease. Even in the most severe cases, involving diseases like Huntington’s in which a single copy of a mutated gene inherited from either parent is enough to cause the disease with 100 percent certainty, editing poses ethical problems. Because of the way genes are distributed in embryos, when one parent has the gene, only half of the parent’s embryos will inherit it. With gene editing, the cutting and pasting has to start immediately, in a fertilized egg, before it is possible to know if an embryo has the Huntington’s gene. That means half the embryos that were edited would have been normal — their DNA would have been forever altered for no reason. “It is unacceptable to mutate normal embryos,” Dr. Jaenisch said. “For me, that means there is no application.”

If I were grading an undergraduate philosophy class, I am not sure Dr. Jaenisch would exceed a C minus with that answer (the source article is here).  Besides I have never known a normal embryo.  Then there is the all too obvious question as to why it should be acceptable to abort embryos, but not to modify or mutate them.  Oops.

The better arguments are surely the slippery slope worries that embryo tinkering will change the nature and future of humanity in dangerous ways, perhaps producing too much conformity, too much zero-sum competition (“buy the Harvard splice”), too much discrimination against various “types,” too much induced family loyalty, legal discouragement of rebellious genes, excess advantages for elites, too many decisions which too explicitly lower the social status of some groups of people, and perhaps ultimately too much drift from the world we know (and love?).

Those are my worries.  Whether or not they are valid, they would seem to merit at least a C+.  But many commentators wish to ensure these issues are not actually argued.  Will this prove the new face of anti-scientific, anti-philosophical thinking?  Check out the closing quotation from Professor Daley at Harvard, and his use of the word “deranged.”

A lot of parents will strongly desire some future version of this product, and I believe a number of countries are going to be willing to proceed with such innovations, if and when they become possible.  They’ll also be willing to live with the costs of the failures in the meantime.  So I don’t think the strategy of shutting down debate is going to fare so well in this case.

…the warden of the Lee Correctional Institute, Cecilia Reynolds, said that in recent weeks her officers found 17 phones in one inmate’s cell. She said she suspected that the phones continue to come in on drones.

There is more here, interesting throughout.  How about this bit?:

Prison officials, echoing Ms. Reynolds, say that convicts and their families and friends are willing to pay more than $1,000 to get a device – like an iPhone — into a prison. Smartphones are so desirable because unlike pay phones at prisons, they are not recorded or monitored, enabling gang leaders to freely run their criminal activities from behind bars. The phones also allow them to watch pornography and communicate surreptitiously with fellow prisoners.

The phones are essential for coordinating with smugglers using drones, because the prisoners need to know where to find the deliveries in the yard. Most important for the smugglers, the prisoners can then use the phones to quickly pay them.

How about blocking cell phone signals inside the jail?  Elsewhere, a possibly radioactive drone was found on the roof of the office of Prime Minister Abe.  As I’ve said already on Twitter, the drone wars have begun…

David Cyranoski and Sarah Reardon report:

In a world first, Chinese scientists have reported editing the genomes of human embryos. The results are published1 in the online journal Protein & Cell and confirm widespread rumours that such experiments had been conducted—rumours that sparked a high-profile debate last month about the ethical implications of such work.

In the paper, researchers led by Junjiu Huang, a gene-function researcher at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, tried to head off such concerns by using ‘non-viable’ embryos, which cannot result in a live birth, that were obtained from local fertility clinics. The team attempted to modify the gene responsible for β-thalassaemia, a potentially fatal blood disorder, using a gene-editing technique known as CRISPR/Cas9. The researchers say that their results reveal serious obstacles to using the method in medical applications.

“I believe this is the first report of CRISPR/Cas9 applied to human pre-implantation embryos and as such the study is a landmark, as well as a cautionary tale,” says George Daley, a stem-cell biologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston. “Their study should be a stern warning to any practitioner who thinks the technology is ready for testing to eradicate disease genes.”

There were too many off-target mutations, but the Chinese attitude seems to be if at first you don’t succeed…

…there are reports that other groups in China are also experimenting on human embryos.

The article is interesting throughout, for instance:

Huang says that the paper was rejected by Nature and Science, in part because of ethical objections; both journals declined to comment on the claim (Nature’s news team is editorially independent of its research editorial team.)

There is more here.  And Carl Zimmer wrote an explainer on it.

The oldest stone tools on record may spell the end for the theory that complex toolmaking began with the genus Homo, to which humans belong. The 3.3-million-year-old artefacts, revealed at a conference in California last week, predate the first members of Homo, and suggest that more-ancient hominin ancestors had the intelligence and dexterity to craft sophisticated tools.

“This is a landmark discovery pertaining to one of the key evolutionary milestones,” says Zeresenay Alemseged, a palaeoanthropologist at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco…

The article is here, and the pointer, not surprisingly, is from Robin Hanson.  I say this should make us more pessimistic about dysgenics, and more pessimistic about the likely prospects for civilization in the future.  Ideally we would like to think that once brains reached a critical threshold, all sorts of good things started happening.  That scenario now seems yet further away from the truth, and the notion of civilizational dead ends, if only for long stretches of time, now seems more likely.  Your views?

Dan Klein (from Abigail D.) directs my attention to an interesting paper by Fisher, Goddu, and Keil (pdf):

As the Internet has become a nearly ubiquitous resource for acquiring knowledge about the world, questions have arisen about its potential effects on cognition. Here we show that searching the Internet for explanatory knowledge creates an illusion whereby people mistake access to information for their own personal understanding of the information. Evidence from 9 experiments shows that searching for information online leads to an increase in self-assessed knowledge as people mistakenly think they have more knowledge “in the head,” even seeing their own brains as more active as depicted by functional MRI (fMRI) images.

Having done some further search on this topic, using Google, I can assure you that I now have a much better grasp on whether this hypothesis is true or not…

Here is a long and excellent post, whereby Robin outs himself as a strange kind of environmentalist.  Do need the whole thing, but here is one summary excerpt:

So, bottom line, the future great filter scenario that most concerns me is one where our solar-system-bound descendants have killed most of nature, can’t yet colonize other stars, are general predators and prey of each other, and have fallen into a short-term-predatory-focus equilibrium where predators can easily see and travel to most all prey. Yes there are about a hundred billion comets way out there circling the sun, but even that seems a small enough number for predators to careful map and track all of them.

“At first they came for the rabbits…and then they came for me.”  I find that intriguing, but I have a more marginalist approach, and perhaps one which encompasses Robin’s hypothesis as a special case.  The death of human (and other) civilizations may be a bit like the death of the human body through old age, namely a whole bunch of things go wrong at once.  If there were a single key problem, it would be easier to find a patch and prolong things for just a bit more.  But if we have reason to believe that, eventually, many things will go wrong at once…such a concatenation of problems is more likely to defeat us.  So my nomination for The Great Filter, in a nutshell, is “everything going wrong at once.”  The simplest underlying model here is that a) problems accumulate, b) resources can be directed to help solve problems, and c) sometimes problems accumulate more rapidly than they can be solved.

This is also why, in many cases, there is no simple “fact of the matter” answer as to why various mighty empires fell in the past.  Here is my earlier review of Apocalypto, a remarkable and still underrated movie.

“A good start…”

by on April 19, 2015 at 1:53 am in Education, Science | Permalink

Mike Irvine is set to make a splash in the dry world of academe. The University of Victoria student is getting ready to defend his masters thesis in education from below the surface of the Salish Sea off the coast of British Columbia.

And lest you think he’s not taking his thesis defense seriously, he’ll be wearing a pinstripe suit over his wet suit.

…Irvine’s thesis, “Underwater web cameras as a tool to engage students in the exploration and discovery of ocean literacy,” will be streamed live on YouTube as well.

His thesis defense will take about 15 minutes and, following his presentation, he’ll face two rounds of questions from his advisors. He expects to be underwater for about an hour.

The link is here, with illustrative videos, via Jodi Ettenberg.

There is some new research by Castilla and Bernard:

In this article, we develop and empirically test the theoretical argument that when an organizational culture promotes meritocracy (compared with when it does not), managers in that organization may ironically show greater bias in favor of men over equally performing women in translating employee performance evaluations into rewards and other key career outcomes; we call this the “paradox of meritocracy.” To assess this effect, we conducted three experiments with a total of 445 participants with managerial experience who were asked to make bonus, promotion, and termination recommendations for several employee profiles. We manipulated both the gender of the employees being evaluated and whether the company’s core values emphasized meritocracy in evaluations and compensation. The main finding is consistent across the three studies: when an organization is explicitly presented as meritocratic, individuals in managerial positions favor a male employee over an equally qualified female employee by awarding him a larger monetary reward. This finding demonstrates that the pursuit of meritocracy at the workplace may be more difficult than it first appears and that there may be unrecognized risks behind certain organizational efforts used to reward merit. We discuss possible underlying mechanisms leading to the paradox of meritocracy effect as well as the scope conditions under which we expect the effect to occur.

The link is here, and for the pointer I thank Samarth Bhaskar.

I will be speaking at the Voice and Exit Festival in Austin, Texas, June 20-21. Voice and Exit is like a TED conference on steroids, an edgier, more radical TED. It looks like a lot of fun. Hope to see you there.

Here is a bit from V&A:

imageWe assemble those who ask: What are the systems and ways of life that are holding us back? What can we create to make those old ways obsolete? What innovations enable us to find wellbeing, life meaning and stronger connection to others? How can we live intentionally today so as to create that better future? Voice & Exit is an environment of exploration where we “criticize by creating” a better world.

Where do pickpockets strike?

by on April 12, 2015 at 3:19 am in Education, Law, Science | Permalink

Kevin Beirne reports from an FT chat with James Freedman and tells us:

I ask if there are certain hotspots where pickpockets strike. Tourist spots, Freedman tells me, especially places such as Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower, where people’s attention is directed upwards and away from their belongings. He says that many pickpockets also operate near signs warning us to beware of pickpockets. The irony is that when people read the signs, they check their pockets or bag, thus alerting the lurking pickpocket to where their valuables are.

File under “Law of Unintended Consequences.”  And if you can get through the gate, the piece is interesting more generally.

The author is Andrej Svorenčík and he has produced the definitive account of the history of experimental economics.  The SSRN paper is here, but it is more accurate to think of this as a monograph at 248 pp. of text.  I hope a major publisher is interested, but do note it starts off a bit slow.  Once it gets going it never lets up and I learned a great deal from it.  Here is just one excerpt:

When Austin C. Hoggatt died on April 29, 2009, at the age of seventy-nine the experimental economics community lost a low profile yet very influential figure.  Hoggatt was the first to build a computerized laboratory for controlled experimentation in economics or, more broadly, in the social, behavioral, and decision science — the Management Science Laboratory at the Center for Research in Management Science at UC Berkeley in 1964.

If you think you might be interested you will be.  The paper/monograph is strong on recognizing the need for an integrated approach to experiments, involving software, support staff, programmers, and researchers, and tracing how all this came together, or in some cases did not.  You really get the inside story from Svorenčík.

The ageing societies of the rich world want rapid income growth and low inflation and a decent return on safe investments and limited redistribution and low levels of immigration. Well you can’t have all of that. And what they have decided is that what they’re prepared to sacrifice is the rapid income growth.

That is from Ryan Avent.