Science

Here is an excellent interview with Nate Silver about his new project, interesting throughout.  Here is one bit:

People also think it’s going to be a sports site with a little politics thrown in, or it’s going to be a politics site with sports thrown in. I understand why people say that — what we’ve been known for, plus ESPN, plus ABC News. But we take our science and economics and lifestyle coverage very seriously.

Some of the interview made me a little nervous.  He inveighs against New York Times Op-Ed columnists (juicy passages, click on the link if you wish), but their knowledge is more synthetic and also more novel than I think Silver recognizes.  I am not sure why “predictable” points of view are necessarily less likely to be true, or less likely to be important, even though they are (to me as well) less interesting to read.

Here are some more words from Silver:

We’re not sociopaths, which means that we look at the world and have opinions. But we’re not trying to do advocacy here. We’re trying to just do analysis. We’re not trying to sway public opinion on anything except trying to make them more numerate. I would say we’re not going to do a ton of public-policy coverage. We think that space is pretty rich now with competition. I also think with something like the health-care bill, it’s going to take years to get a good sense of how that’s working and how it’s affecting the market.

That too makes me a little nervous.  For instance there is the risk of assuming that the most important issues always or usually involve measurement.   Technocrats who rail against the ideologies of others are often the most ideological people around, even if their biases do not line up with the political spectrum in the usual manner.  Is there really such a thing as “just do analysis”?  Is it not better to make the underlying value presuppositions more explicit?  And why the knock at people who don’t have opinions about public affairs?  They’re not sociopaths, and frankly I’m not even fully comfortable with a blanket condemnation of sociopaths.

Earlier today I was reading John Hauer’s excellent The Natural Superiority of Mules.  It is a deliberately species-ist book, without a shred of objectivity, and the title reveals the blatant biases of the author.  The book has data, but is not data-driven.  It is “advocacy of mules driven.”  Get the subtitle: “A Celebration of One of the Most Intelligent, Sure-Footed, and Misunderstood Animals in the World” (eyes roll).  Yet I learned a great deal from it, and I will read any web site that can do as well.

Elephants are able to differentiate between ethnicities and genders, and can tell an adult from a child – all from the sound of a human voice.

This is according to a study in which researchers played voice recordings to wild African elephants.

The animals showed more fear when they heard the voices of adult Masai men.

Livestock-herding Masai people do come into conflict with elephants, and this suggests that animals have adapted to specifically listen for and avoid them.

The study is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

There is more here.

There was a brief symposium, here are the results:

Larry Summers

President Emeritus of Harvard University, Former Chief Economist of the World Bank

My sense is that cap and trade is not the route to the future. It did not make it politically in the US at a moment of great opportunity in 2009. And European carbon markets have been plagued by constant problems. And globally it’s even harder. My sense is that the right strategy has three major elements. First, as the G20 vowed in 2009, there needs to be a concerted phase out of fossil fuel subsidies. This would help government budgets, drive increases in economic efficiency and substantially reduce global emissions. Second, there needs to be assurance of adequate funding for all areas of basic energy research. As a practical matter my guess is the world will produce non fossil fuel power in the next 25 years at today s fossil fuel prices or it will fail with respect to global climate change. Third, there is a strong case for concerted carbon taxes to further discourage greenhouse gas emissions. But this is a follow-on step for after the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies.

Bjorn Lomborg

Director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and adjunct professor at Copenhagen Business School

The only way to move towards a long-term reduction in emissions is if green energy becomes much cheaper. If it cost less than fossil fuels, everyone would switch, including the Chinese. This, of course, requires breakthroughs in green technologies and much more innovation.

At the Copenhagen Consensus on Climate (fixtheclimate.com), a panel of economists, including three Nobel laureates, found that the best long-term strategy to tackle global warming was to increase dramatically investment in green research and development. They suggested doing so 10-fold to $100bn a year globally. This would equal 0.2% of global GDP. Compare this to the EU’s climate policies, which cost $280 billion a year but reduce temperatures by a trivial 0.1 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century.

Alex Tabarrok

Bartley J. Madden Chair in Economics at the Mercatus Center, George Mason University

Neither the developed nor the developing world will accept large reductions in their standard of living. As a result, the only solution to global climate change is innovations in green technology. A carbon tax will induce innovation as people demand a way to avoid the tax. A carbon tax, however, will be more politically acceptable if technologies to avoid the tax are in existence before the tax is put into place. Prizes for green innovations can blaze a path down a road that must be traveled, making the trip easier. The L-prize successfully induced innovation in LED technologies, the X-Prize put a spacecraft into near space twice within two weeks and Google’s Lunar X prize for putting a robot on the moon is close to being awarded. Prizes have proven their worth. To speed both the creation and diffusion of green technology, green prizes should be awarded at the rate of $100-$200 million annually.

Tyler Cowen

Professor of Economics, George Mason University

This is a problem we are failing to solve. Keep in mind it is not just about getting the wealthy countries to switch to greener technologies, but we also desire that emerging economies will find green technology more profitable than dirty coal. A carbon tax is one way forward but the odds are that will not be enough and besides many countries are unlikely to adopt one anytime soon. Subsidies for technology could occur at a very basic level and we could make a gamble that nuclear fusion will finally pay off. We also need a version of green technology that will fit into existing energy infrastructures and into countries which do not have the most reliable institutions. The most likely scenario is that we will find out just how bad the climate change problem is slated to be.

There are further responses at the link.

Addendum: Ashok Rao adds comments.

Try this:

Long years have passed.

I think of goodbye.

Locked tight in the night

I think of passion;

Drawn to for blue, the night

During the page

My shattered pieces of life

watching the joy

shattered pieces of love

My shattered pieces of love

gone stale.

Here is (supposedly) the most computer-like human poem, “Cut Opinions,” by Deanna Ferguson:

cut opinions tear tasteful

hungers huge ground swell

partisan have-not thought

green opinions hidden slide

hub from sprung in

weather yah

bold erect tender

perfect term transparent till

I two minute topless formed

A necessarily sorry sloppy strands

hot opinions oh like an apple

a lie, a liar kick back

filial oh well hybrid opinions happen

not stopped

Here are related rankings and explanation (sort of).  Was this poem written by a human or a computer?  I have no idea.

That is a new research paper by Kristina M. Durante, Vladas Griskevicius, Stephanie M. Cantú , and Jeffry A. Simpson, and the abstract is here:

Each month, millions of women experience an ovulatory cycle that regulates fertility. Previous consumer research has found that this cycle influences women’s clothing and food preferences. The authors propose that the ovulatory cycle actually has a much broader effect on women’s economic behavior. Drawing on theory in evolutionary psychology, the authors hypothesize that the week-long period near ovulation should boost women’s desire for relative status, which should alter their economic decisions. Findings from three studies show that women near ovulation seek positional goods to improve their social standing. Additional findings reveal that ovulation leads women to pursue positional goods when doing so improves relative standing compared with other women but not compared with men. When playing the dictator game, for example, ovulating women gave smaller offers to a female partner but not to a male partner. Overall, women’s monthly hormonal fluctuations seem to have a substantial effect on consumer behavior by systematically altering their positional concerns, a finding that has important implications for marketers, consumers, and researchers.

Here is some popular coverage of the piece.  For the pointer I thank C.

What I worry about

by on March 3, 2014 at 4:56 pm in Philosophy, Science | Permalink

LATimes: A 30,000-year-old giant virus has been revived from the frozen Siberian tundra, sparking concern that increased mining and oil drilling in rapidly warming northern latitudes could disturb dormant microbial life that could one day prove harmful to man.

The original research is here. Have a nice day.

Bringing extinct species back to life

by on February 27, 2014 at 9:34 am in History, Science | Permalink

It will happen, in fact it has already happened and more than ten years ago:

Novak is tall, solemn, polite and stiff in conversation, until the conversation turns to passenger pigeons, which it always does. One of the few times I saw him laugh was when I asked whether de-extinction might turn out to be impossible. He reminded me that it has already happened. More than 10 years ago, a team that included Alberto Fernández-Arias (now a Revive & Restore adviser) resurrected a bucardo, a subspecies of mountain goat also known as the Pyrenean ibex, that went extinct in 2000. The last surviving bucardo was a 13-year-old female named Celia. Before she died — her skull was crushed by a falling tree — Fernández-Arias extracted skin scrapings from one of her ears and froze them in liquid nitrogen. Using the same cloning technology that created Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal, the team used Celia’s DNA to create embryos that were implanted in the wombs of 57 goats. One of the does successfully brought her egg to term on July 30, 2003. “To our knowledge,” wrote the scientists, “this is the first animal born from an extinct subspecies.” But it didn’t live long. After struggling to breathe for several minutes, the kid choked to death.

There is more here, interesting throughout.  One risk is that these newly recreated animals may turn out to be efficient carriers of modern diseases.  And the economic benefits of recreating extinct species are…? And here is a legal perspective:

In “How to Permit Your Mammoth,” published in The Stanford Environmental Law Journal, Norman F. Carlin asks whether revived species should be protected by the Endangered Species Act or regulated as a genetically modified organism. He concludes that revived species, “as products of human ingenuity,” should be eligible for patenting.

And are they really the same animals after all, given the imperfections in the process of cloning and recreation?  The philosopher might say this:

“I would like to have an elephant that likes the cold weather,” he told me. “Whether you call it a ‘mammoth’ or not, I don’t care.”

I say we would be wise to exercise option value on this one, but of course the incentives of scientists are to do something first.

Have stuff delivered to your car

by on February 24, 2014 at 2:32 pm in Science, Web/Tech | Permalink

Via Mark Perry:

In a ground-breaking technology move for the automotive industry, Volvo Cars demonstrates the world’s first delivery of food to the car – a new form of ‘roam delivery’ services. The service will allow consumers to have their shopping delivered straight to their car, no matter where they are. Volvo’s new digital keys technology means that car owners will be able to choose their car as a delivery option when ordering goods online. Via a smartphone or a tablet, the owner will be informed when a delivery company wants to drop off or pick up something from the car.

Having accepted the delivery, he or she then hands out a digital key and can track when the car is opened and then locked again. Once the pick-up or drop-off is completed, the digital key ceases to exist.

For the pointer I thank Samir Varma.

That is published in The Washington Post, and I can recommend both books.  Coyle’s book is GDP: A Brief But Affectionate History and Karabell’s is The Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers That Rule Our World.  My opening sentences are this:

‘May my children grow up in a world where no one knows who the central banker is” is a wise saying. One also can hope for a world where arguments about measuring GDP (gross domestic product, the sum total of the goods and services produced within a nation) or the inflation rate are rare. In good economic times, we tend to take reported economic numbers for granted, but more recently, conspiracy theories have run wild.

On Coyle:

If you are going to read only one book on GDP, Diane Coyle’s “GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History” should be it. More important, you should read a book on GDP, as many of the political debates of our time revolve around this concept. Can we afford our current path of entitlement spending? Was the Obama fiscal stimulus worth it? When will China overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy?

The answers all depend on GDP. In 140 pages of snappy text, Coyle lays out what GDP numbers measure, what roles they play in economic policymaking and forecasting, and how GDP numbers can sometimes mislead us, albeit not in the way many current critics suggest.

With Karabell I have a quibble:

I do not agree with Karabell’s claim that “Bhutan is now routinely described as one of the happiest nations in the world.” The prime minister of Bhutan, Tshering Tobgay, has moved away from talk of “Gross National Happiness,” perhaps because he has realized that his country has relatively little of it. Most of the population is engaged in subsistence farming and has only a minimal chance of performing rewarding or creative labor. The prime minister instead wishes to focus on concrete goals such as “a motorized rototiller for every village and a utility vehicle for each district.” For all the talk of being content with less, external debt has soared to 90 percent of GDP. If anything, Bhutan may show that measures of GDP get at happiness more clearly than does focusing on happiness more directly. Just look at where immigrants wish to move — it is almost always wealthier countries.

Read the whole thing.

From Anemona Hartecollis, here are some interesting points:

Agencies prefer to contract with surrogates who are married with children, because they have a proven ability to have a healthy baby and are less likely to have second thoughts about giving up the child.

Conversely, gay couples are popular among surrogates. “Most of my surrogates want same-sex couples,” said Darlene Pinkerton, the owner of A Perfect Match, the agency in San Diego that Mr. Hoylman used. Women unable to become pregnant often go through feelings of jealousy and loss, she said. But with gay men, that is not part of the dynamic, so “the experience is really positive for the surrogate.”

Or as her husband, Tom, a third-party reproductive lawyer, put it, “Imagine instead of just having one husband doting on you, you have three guys now sending you flowers.”

The piece is interesting throughout.

Switzerland really does produce global tfp, Tim Berners-Lee being the most obvious example, not to mention CERN, particle colliders, and pharmaceuticals:

The outcome of an ill-conceived referendum on 9 February against ‘mass immigration’ threatens to spoil Switzerland’s beautiful science landscape (see page 277).

The full story is here.  For the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson.

That is the new NBER paper by Richard B. Freeman and Wei Huang and it is an object lesson in the benefits of cross-cultural collaboration:

This study examines the ethnic identify of the authors of over 1.5 million scientific papers written solely in the US from 1985 to 2008. In this period the proportion of US-based authors with English and European names fell while the proportion of US-based authors with names from China and other developing countries increased. The evidence shows that persons of similar ethnicity co- author together more frequently than can be explained by chance given their proportions in the population of authors. This homophily in research collaborations is associated with weaker scientific contributions. Researchers with weaker past publication records are more likely to write with members of ethnicity than other researchers. Papers with greater homophily tend to be published in lower impact journals and to receive fewer citations than others, even holding fixed the previous publishing performance of the authors. Going beyond ethnic homophily, we find that papers with more authors in more locations and with longer lists of references tend to be published in relatively high impact journals and to receive more citations than other papers. These findings and those on homophily suggest that diversity in inputs into papers leads to greater contributions to science, as measured by impact factors and citations.

I can think of at least two ways of interpreting these results.  First, there are research profit opportunities from finding talented foreign collaborators, who perhaps are still undervalued in their home environments, relative to their total potential global productivity.  Second, the globalization of your connections proxies for how elite you are, even after adjusting for other measures of researcher quality.

Do any of you find ungated versions?

Jugaad sentences to ponder

by on February 18, 2014 at 1:41 pm in Film, Science | Permalink

The budget of India’s Mars mission, by contrast, was just three-quarters of the $100 million that Hollywood spent on last year’s space-based hit, “Gravity.”

There is more here.

You will find his NBER paper here, in which he responds to critics and outlines his core argument that U.S. growth is doomed to be slow and subpar for a long time to come.  There is no point in summarizing this already-familiar debate, so let’s cut straight to the chase:

1. I agree with a great deal of this paper, to say the least, especially when it is compared to previous mainstream opinion on these topics.  My favorite parts are his discussions of how multi-faceted were the waves of earlier progress starting in the 19th century, compared to some of the more recent and weaker tech revolutions.  That said, in some key ways this piece falls short of meeting the standards of reasoned argumentation.

2. The single biggest question is how much the United States will be able to draw upon innovation from other countries, over the next say 40 years.  Gordon doesn’t discuss this in a serious way.  The rest of his paper simply lists a bunch of pessimistic factors (valid worries, I might add) and then declares he can’t think of anything else that might turn them around.  Maybe that should shift your “p,” but one’s own failure to imagine shouldn’t imply a very firm conclusion about impossibilities.

3. There is a key passage on p.26: “My forecast of 1.3 percent annual total-economy productivity growth in the future does not require any foresight beyond suggesting that the past 40 years are a more relevant benchmark of feasible productivity growth than the 80 years of before 1972.”  Fair enough, but how about looking at the last 120 years or last 120,000 years for that matter?  The overall pattern is lots of pauses, followed by eventual new bursts of progress.  That’s no proof of a future subsequent burst of progress, but so far history is not on the side of the long-term tech pessimists.  It may be on the side of the short-term tech pessimists, at least for a while.  Gordon, in 2003, wrote rather wisely: “But is it possible to be so sure which decades into the past are relevant for predictions…”

4. Gordon doesn’t know much about the literature on driverless vehicles and their potential, and yet he escalates his rhetoric to the point of giving the reader the impression that he approaches the entire question of tech progress with simple irritation: “This category of future progress is demoted to last place because it offers benefits that are so minor [compared to cars]…”

5. Advances in the biosciences are dismissed in two short paragraphs.  For sure, I am myself somewhat in tune with the pessimistic perspective here.  I think these advances were way over-promised and still may take longer than people think.  Still, Gordon doesn’t offer any argument.  His first sentence of that brief section says it all: “Future advances in medicine related to the genome have already proved to be disappointing.”  This is a simple confusion of past and future tense.

6. Gordon significantly underestimates already existing advances in software, automation, robotics and related technologies.

7. Gordon still fails to credit the originators of the growth slowdown idea, as applied to contemporary times, namely Michael Mandel and Peter Thiel.  The first sentence of his paper reads: “A controversy about the future of U.S. economic growth was ignited by my paper released in late summer 2012.”  I would add, perhaps with a bit of peevishness, that a lot of the actual debate was kicked off by my own The Great Stagnation, published in January of 2011 and which was covered and commented on extensively.  (And which by the way was dedicated to Mandel and Thiel, as well as citing them.)  And if I did not credit Gordon more aggressively at that time, it is because I was all too well aware of his 2003 essay, “Exploding Productivity Growth,” the contents of which I do not need to relate any further but if you wish read at the link.

Gordon would do well to reflect a little more deeply on how and why he has changed his mind over the last ten years and what this implies for when a bit more agnosticism would be appropriate.

Addendum: I agree with Kevin Drum.  Matt Yglesias comments too.

In his recent NBER working paper, Robert Gordon wrote:

This lack of multitasking ability is dismissed by the robot enthusiasts – just wait, it is coming. Soon our robots will not only be able to win at Jeopardy but also will be able to check in your bags at the sky cap station at the airport, thus displacing the skycaps. But the physical tasks that humans can do are unlikely to be replaced in the next several decades by robots. Surely multiple-function robots will be developed, but it will be a long and gradual process before robots outside of the manufacturing and wholesaling sectors become a significant factor in replacing human jobs in the service or construction sectors.

So how is it with those skycaps?  I queried Air Genius Gary Leff and he wrote this back to me:

There are still people picking up/loading bags onto the planes, but –

American Airlines has tested self-tagging of bags in Boston, Austin, and Orlando
http://boardingarea.com/aadvantagegeek/2012/11/14/american-airlines-orlando-mco-self-tagging-tag-bag-luggage-system-check-i/

Qantas has permanent bag tags that work with RFID readers at the airport, you check in online and drop your bag at the bag drop and leave.  This works for their Australian domestic flights.  (I do have a “Q Bag Tag”)
http://www.qantas.com.au/travel/airlines/q-bag-tag/global/en

British Airways is trialing an end to paper tags, they began with Microsoft employees in Seattle this past fall
http://boardingarea.com/viewfromthewing/2013/11/07/british-airways-new-electronic-baggage-tags/

Brussels Airlines on intra-European flights departing Brussels
http://brusselsairlines.prezly.com/brussels-airport-and-brussels-airlines-test-automated-self-baggage-drop-off-

BWI is working on their baggage systems to accommodate self-checking of bags
http://www.capitalgazette.com/news/general_assembly/bwi-moving-forward-with-new-hotel-self-bag-check-in/

And that required no more than a few minutes thought from Gary.