Science

Overall, the results support co-occurrence theories that predict simultaneous secular gains in specialized abilities and declines in g.

NB: this is for memory tests alone.  Here is the paper, via Rolf Degen.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  Electric cars, insofar as they limit climate change, are an example of defensive innovation.  Here is further explanation:

Defensive innovation is when you create a new product or capability to protect yourself against an impending disaster, such as the worst scenarios for climate change. It’s important, of course, to practice defensive innovation, but don’t confuse it with progress. The defense only stops your living standards from falling.

The military response to foreign threats is another example of defensive innovation. The risk and potential costs of cyberwarfare are escalating rapidly, and terrorist threats seem worse than they did in the 1980s or 1990s. The best case scenario is that we come up with better means of tracking and hindering cyber and terrorist attacks — by cutting off funding or by tracing and halting potential perpetrators. Those too will be defensive innovations, aimed mostly at preserving capabilities we already have.

The American military might someday develop better protection against the new threat of North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles, which might be capable of delivering nuclear weapons to U.S. cities, possibly even New York and Washington. Imagine something akin to Israel’s “Iron Dome,” but protecting a broader geographic area against a greater diversity of weapons. That would be an impressive achievement, but would be an essentially defensive innovation.

Here is the uh-oh sentences:

Note that in the earlier stages of economic growth, there is usually less defensive innovation, if only because there is less to defend.

Do read the whole thing.

Cellophane gets an entire chapter in Hisano’s book. As she explains in the paper, cellophane packaging let food vendors manipulate the appearance of foods by controlling the amount of moisture and oxygen that touched a product, thus preventing discoloration. “Cellophane played a big part in how the color of food started to be controlled and standardized,” she says.

…Cellophane, the world’s first transparent packaging film, was invented in 1908 by the Swiss engineer Jacques Brandenberger. He dubbed it “cellophane” as a combination of the words “cellulose” (of which it was made) and “diaphane” (an archaic form of the word “diaphanous,” which is a fancy word for “transparent”). He assigned his patents to La Cellophane Societe Anonyme, a French company formed for the sole purpose of marketing the invention. In 1923, the company licensed to DuPont the exclusive rights to make and sell cellophane in the United States.

…Initial versions of cellophane were waterproof, but not moisture-proof. So, while it was effective for wrapping products like candy and cigarettes, it wasn’t effective for packaging fresh food. In 1927, DuPont developed moisture-proof cellophane, food manufacturers started using it to package items like cakes and cheeses, and cellophane sales tripled between 1928 and 1930.

Here is the full story, interesting throughout, via the estimable Chug.

Question  What are the neuropathological and clinical features of a case series of deceased players of American football neuropathologically diagnosed as having chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)?

Findings  In a convenience sample of 202 deceased players of American football from a brain donation program, CTE was neuropathologically diagnosed in 177 players across all levels of play (87%), including 110 of 111 former National Football League players (99%).

Here is the research paper, via Peter Metrinko.  Here is NYT coverage of the result.

Adam Ozimek asks me:

How should we think about this in a meta-rational sense? https://www.theverge.com/2017/7/20/16003766/elon-musk-boring-company-hyperloop-nyc-philadelphia-baltimore-dc

…What should we make of it?

To be clear, I have never had interaction with Elon Musk, so I intend these as general possibilities, rather than as commentary on his individual personality:

1. There are some people who on Twitter will just “fuck with us.”  Precisely because they have done a lot in the so-called “real world,” they just don’t take Twitter that seriously.

2. Some very successful people are programmed to rhetorically overreach.  This makes them the center of attention and furthermore keeps them motivated.  They don’t apply the same kind of “reality filter” to their rhetoric that a scientist might.

3. Sometimes exaggeration is used to distract from pending failures, a’la Trump, and this process may include self-distraction.  (Tesla?)

4. Exaggeration is a way to keep the hyperloop on the agenda and in the mindset of the nerdy public.  Eventually that will help make the hyperloop possible.  Speakers with this motive often think of themselves as bootstrapping the reality, rather than “making stuff up.”

Most of talk isn’t about reporting the truth! In this sense the tweet isn’t surprising at all.

And what the heck is “verbal government approval” in a world with federalism, multiple layers of environmental review, NIMBY homeowners, and courts of varying jurisdictions? I like to think the tweet might be an act of sarcastic protest, or Straussian meta-commentary born out of frustration, but somehow I suspect neither of those is the case.

Here is the podcast and transcript (no video), Atul was in top form.  We covered the marginal value of health care, the progress of AI in medicine, whether we should fear genetic engineering, whether the checklist method applies to marriage (maybe so!), whether FDA regulation is too tough, whether surgical procedures should be more tightly regulated, Michael Crichton and Stevie Wonder, wearables, what makes him weep, Knausgaard and Ferrante, why surgeons leave sponges in patients, how he has been so successful, his own performance as a medical patient, and much more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: A lot of critics have charged that to get a new drug through the FDA, it takes too many years and too much money, and that somehow the process should be liberalized. Do you agree or disagree?

GAWANDE: I generally disagree. It’s a trade-off in values at some basic level. In the 1950s, we had no real FDA, and you had the opportunity to put out, to innovate in all kinds of ways, and that innovation capability gave us modern cardiac surgery and gave us steroids and antibiotics, but it also gave us frontal lobotomies, and it gave us the Tuskegee experiment and a variety of other things.

The process that we have regulation around both the ethics of what we’re doing and that we have some safety process along the way is totally appropriate. I think a lot of lessons about when the HIV community became involved in the FDA process to drive approaches that smoothed and sped up the decision-making process, and also got the public enough involved to be able to say . . . That community said, “Look, there are places where we’re willing to take greater risks for the sake of speed.”

People are trying to treat the FDA process as a technical issue. When what it is, is it’s an issue about what are the risks we are genuinely willing to take, and what are the risks that we’re not?

And:

COWEN: The idea of nudge.

GAWANDE: I think overrated.

COWEN: Why?

GAWANDE: I think that there are important insights in nudge units and in that research capacity, but when you step back and say, “What are the biggest problems in clinical behavior and delivery of healthcare?” the nudges are focused on small solutions that have not demonstrated capacity for major scale.

The kind of nudge capability is something we’ve built into the stuff we’ve done, whether it’s checklists or coaching, but it’s been only one. We’ve had to add other tools. You could not get to massive reductions in deaths in surgery or childbirth or massive improvements in end-of-life outcomes based on just those behavioral science insights alone. We’ve had to move to organizational insights and to piece together multiple kinds of layers of understanding in order to drive high-volume change in healthcare delivery.

Definitely recommended, this was one of my favorite “episodes.”

Are the aliens merely sleeping?

by on July 18, 2017 at 2:28 am in Science | Permalink

Here is another attempt to crack the Fermi paradox, relying on low time preference and Knut Wicksell’s wine parable:

“While it is possible for a civilization to cool down parts of itself to any low temperature,” the authors write, that, too, requires work. So it wouldn’t make sense for a civilization looking to maximize its computational capacity to waste energy on the process. As Sandberg and Cirkovic elaborate in a blog post, it’s more likely that such artificial life would be in a protected sleep mode today, ready to wake up in colder futures.

If such aliens exist, they’re in luck. The universe appears to be cooling down on its own. Over the next trillions of years, as it continues to expand and the formation of new stars slows, the background radiation will reduce to practically zero. Under those conditions, Sandberg and Cirkovic explain, this kind of artificial life would get “tremendously more done.” Tremendous isn’t an understatement, either. The researchers calculate that by employing such a strategy, they could achieve up to 1030 times more than if done today.

In other words, now is an inefficient time for getting things done.  That is from Robert Hart at Slate.

I will be having a Conversation with him on Sept.6, locale and time to be announced.  In the meantime, what should I ask him?

I thank you all in advance for your sage and balanced judgments.

The widths of the Pacific continued unaltered for millions of years.  Temperatures scarcely dropped there in the Ice Ages.  Generation after generation of Pacific birds were able to evolve in an almost completely stable world.  Birds which somehow or other had arrived on remote islands branched into different species.  In the Atlantic, there was hardly time to do that between the Ice Ages…in the Atlantic endemics — species confined to particular places — only rarely evolved.

What you see when the puffins arrive in the spring is a product of this history.  The Atlantic, for the past 2.74 million years has been a place of coming and going, unsettled at the deepest of levels, a system always ready to flip from relatively beneficent to deeply unaccommodating.  Life does not have the time here to develop the mass of differentiated variety it has within the security of the Pacific.

…The result is that now in the North Atlantic there is relatively little local variation.  Species have evolved to cope with the variability and have wide ranges across the latitudes.  The Pacific is a mosaic of local land-based varieties; the Atlantic the exclusive realm of the ocean travellers, birds which have distance embedded in their way of being.

That is from the new and excellent The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean Voyagers, by Adam Nicholson.  Whether it is covering the sex lives of guillemots or how gannets abuse their children, this book is first-rate.

The puffin chapter closes with this:

Next time you sit among the puffins on a summer evening, looking at their elegance and anxiety, that is what to hold in mind: not clowns but beauties, Ice Age survivors, scholar-gypsies of the Atlantic, their minds on an everlasting swing between island and sea, burrow and voyage, parent and child, the oscillating nomad masters of an unpacific ocean.

By the way, that is a UK Amazon link above, so they had to ship my copy across the Atlantic.

Now, a team of public health researchers studying neighborhoods in Baltimore has added one more indignity to that list: poorer neighborhoods also have to deal with more serious mosquito infestations.

The researchers, led by Eliza Little of Columbia University, surveyed Asian tiger mosquito populations in five West Baltimore neighborhoods, spanning the gamut from the impoverished (Harlem Park) to the well-heeled (Bolton Hill).

For three years, they surveyed a number of factors known to influence mosquito populations: abandoned buildings, accumulating trash, sources of standing water and surface vegetation among them. They tallied mosquito larvae and pupae where they found them, and put up periodic traps to catch and count adult female mosquitoes (the ones that do the biting).

It turned out, unsurprisingly, that poor neighborhoods have more abandoned buildings and also have more accumulated trash and more standing pools of water, all conducive to mosquitoes.

Here is the Wonkblog piece by Christopher Ingraham, here is the paper itself, in the Journal of Medical Entomology.

This Buzzfeed article on unauthorized poop transplants has much of interest:

A spate of studies over the last decade have convinced microbiologists and doctors that “fecal microbiota transplantation,” or FMT, works for at least one disease: a deadly bacterial infection in the gut known as Clostridium difficile, or C. diff. No one knows whether the procedures work on other conditions, though dozens of clinical trials are testing them on people with irritable bowel syndromeCrohn’s diseaseobesitydiabetesepilepsyautism, and even HIV.

The science is advancing rapidly, with more and more scientists excited about the potential and potency of fecal matter and the microbes in it. The FDA regulations on these procedures, however, keep them out of reach for most patients: Since 2013, the agency has banned doctors from doing fecal transplants on anything except C. diff.

A rogue clinic in Tampa, however, provides the carefully sourced material and explains to patients how the procedure is done. Since the procedure is simple, lots of experimentation is going on which upsets some people.

Poop from an unscreened stranger could carry serious infections, like hepatitis or gonorrhea, or dormant viruses.

No doubt–this is why we also ban sex and french kissing.

I suspect that many of the so-called treatments are crazy but people do a lot of crazy things. It’s odd that we allow some crazy things and ban others—even more that the crazy things we allow are sometimes socially useless while the crazy things that we ban are sometimes socially valuable.

The case for banning extreme sports, for example, is much stronger than the case for banning extreme medicine. Extreme sports don’t provide much benefit to the rest of humanity, other than some entertainment of questionable social value. Extreme medicine, on the other hand, has the potential to improve all our lives and at the very least is a useful warning about what not to do. Yet, extreme sports are lauded, or at least treated as mostly your own business (we do put some regulations on boxing and race car driving), while extreme medicine is heavily regulated and socially frowned upon.

My attitude is the reverse. You want to risk your life climbing without ropes? Knock yourself out–but don’t expect any support from me. I won’t even watch Alex Honnold because I think that what he does is Russian roulette and I do not approve. But, you want to risk your life trying an unapproved medical treatment? Sir, I salute you. Give that man a Nobel prize.

Here is a good Tobin Harshaw interview with Jeffrey Lewis, here is one good bit, scary in more than one regard:

Nuclear-armed missiles are a 1950s-era technology.

And:

Well, there is a difference between the range the missile demonstrated last week, which was about 4,000 miles, and what the simulations we do at the Middlebury Institute suggest the missile may be capable of. My colleages, along with David Wright at the Union of Concerned Scientists, looked very closely at the launch of a new intermediate-range missile in May, as well as this one, trying to measure the missile and model its performance. It seems to me the North Korea cut the engines a bit early here, possibly so they did not overfly Japan. But they have been very clear their targets are in the continental U.S. — the Pacific Fleet in San Diego, Washington, and lately New York City — not Alaska. And our initial modeling of this missile suggests that it should be able to deliver a nuclear-weapon sized payload to most, if not all, those places. We’re still modeling away though.

And:

I don’t think the North Koreans are going to deliberately start a nuclear war, but I think they might use those weapons if they thought a war was coming and they needed to get a jump on the U.S. and South Korea. And, despite the poor track record of decapitation strikes, the idea really frightens the North Koreans. But instead of making them behave, I suspect it will lead them to do things that I really don’t like, such as releasing nuclear weapons to lower level missile units.

Food for thought, the interview is interesting throughout.

Overall the argument is that point estimates should not be shoved into a Drake equation and then multiplied by each, as that requires excess certainty and masks much of the ambiguity of our knowledge about the distributions.  Instead, a Bayesian approach should be used, after which the fate of humanity looks much better.  Here is one part of the presentation:

Conclusion 2: the great filter is likely in the past

Given the priors and the Fermi observation, the default guess should be that the low -probability term(s) are in the past.

The conclusion can be changed if:

We reduce the uncertainty of past terms to less than 7 orders of magnitude

The distributions have weird shapes

Note that a past great filter does not imply our safety

(The stars just don’t foretell our doom)

And:

Life only actually occurs 8% of the time

It is also noteworthy that most life on earth shares the same genetic system, implying it takes a long time for a particular kind of life, and also intelligence, to evolve.

Those slides are by Anders Sandberg, Eric Drexler & Toby Ord, “Dissolving the Fermi Paradox,” and the pointer is from Patrick Collison.

Whew!  That said, your rate of savings now ought to go up just a wee amount.

A modern central heating system wasn’t installed until Harry S. Truman’s term, but the AC comes first.

Navy engineers built America’s first air-conditioning system in a desperate attempt to save President James Garfield’s life. Garfield was actually on his way to escaping the heat and humidity of Washington when he was shot by an assassin in a train station on July 2, 1881. In her bookDestiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President,” Candice Millard describes a contraption comprising a fan pumping air through screens of cheesecloth bathed in ice water. The cooled air was then piped into Garfield’s room, bringing the temperature down to about 80 degrees. Garfield died anyway.

And:

When electricity was installed in the White House in 1891, then-President Benjamin Harrison was so afraid of being shocked that he refused to touch the circular switches controlling the current in each room. Gas lighting was still used in conjunction with electric for some time.

The article, by Gillian Brockell, is interesting throughout.

Do plants minimize surprise?

by on June 26, 2017 at 1:46 pm in Science | Permalink

Calvo and Friston came up with this:

In this article we account for the way plants respond to salient features of their environment under the free-energy principle for biological systems. Biological self-organization amounts to the minimization of surprise over time. We posit that any self-organizing system must embody a generative model whose predictions ensure that (expected) free energy is minimized through action. Plants respond in a fast, and yet coordinated manner, to environmental contingencies. They pro-actively sample their local environment to elicit information with an adaptive value. Our main thesis is that plant behaviour takes place by way of a process (active inference) that predicts the environmental sources of sensory stimulation. This principle, we argue, endows plants with a form of perception that underwrites purposeful, anticipatory behaviour. The aim of the article is to assess the prospects of a radical predictive processing story that would follow naturally from the free-energy principle for biological systems; an approach that may ultimately bear upon our understanding of life and cognition more broadly.

I suspect it is speculative, but it is always interesting to see how economics-related ideas sometimes shape biology, and vice versa.

Here is the paper, and for the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson.