Single cell learning seems to be real

The question of whether single cells can learn led to much debate in the early 20th century. The view prevailed that they were capable of non-associative learning but not of associative learning, such as Pavlovian conditioning. Experiments indicating the contrary were considered either non-reproducible or subject to more acceptable interpretations. Recent developments suggest that the time is right to reconsider this consensus. We exhume the experiments of Beatrice Gelber on Pavlovian conditioning in the ciliate Paramecium aurelia, and suggest that criticisms of her findings can now be reinterpreted. Gelber was a remarkable scientist whose absence from the historical record testifies to the prevailing orthodoxy that single cells cannot learn. Her work, and more recent studies, suggest that such learning may be evolutionarily more widespread and fundamental to life than previously thought and we discuss the implications for different aspects of biology.

That is from a new paper by Samuel J. Gershman, Petra E. M. Balbi, C. Randy Gallistel, and Jeremy Gunawarden, of Harvard, MIT, and Rutgers.

Via the excellent Gaurav Venkataraman (an EV winner who did recent important work in this area).

Most Popular MR Posts of the Year

Here is a selection of the most popular MR posts of 2020. COVID was a big of course. Let’s start with Tyler’s post warning that herd immunity was fragile because it holds only “for the current configuration of social relations”. Absolutely correct.

The fragility of herd immunity

Tyler also predicted the pandemic yo-yo and Tyler’s post (or was it Tyrone?) What does this economist think of epidemiologists? was popular.

Tyler has an amazing ability to be ahead of the curve. A case in point, What libertarianism has become and will become — State Capacity Libertarianism was written on January 1 of last year, before anyone was talking about pandemics! State capacity libertarianism became my leitmotif for the year. I worked with Kremer on pushing government to use market incentives to increase vaccine supply and at the same repeatedly demanded that the FDA move faster and stop prohibiting people from taking vaccines or using rapid tests. As I put it;

Fake libertarians whine about masks. Real libertarians assert the right to medical self-defense and demand access to vaccines on a right to try basis.

See my 2015 post Is the FDA Too Conservative or Too Aggressive for a good review of ideas on the FDA. A silver lining of the pandemic may be that more people realize that FDA delay kills.

My historical posts the The Forgotten Recession and Pandemic of 1957 and What Worked in 1918? and the frightening The Lasting Effects of the the 1918 Influenza Pandemic were well linked.

Outside of COVID, Tyler’s 2005 post Why did so many Germans support Hitler? suddenly attracted a lot of interest. I wonder why?

Policing was also popular including my post Why Are the Police in Charge of Road Safety? which called for unbundling the police and my post Underpoliced and Overprisoned revisited.

Tyler’s great post The economic policy of Elizabeth Warren remains more relevant than I would like. On a more positive note see Tyler’s post Best Non-Fiction Books of the Year.

One of the most popular posts of the year and my most popular post was The Gaslighting of Parasite.

But the post attracting the most page views in 2020 by far, however, was Tyler’s and it was…

  1. John Brennan on UFOs.

You people are weird. Don’t expect more UFO content this year. Unless, well you know.

The clock is ticking…

President Trump’s signature Sunday on the $2.3 trillion COVID-19 relief and government funding bill started a 180 day countdown for the Pentagon and spy agencies to say what they know about UFOs.

Here is a bit more information.  I don’t expect anything revelatory, simply confirmation that the current data truly are puzzling, and are considered puzzling by the most serious observers.

Sorry Alex!  But if we are going to spend $2.3 trillion, at least we will get something in return.  Via Jackson.

Those reckless, reckless British, moving to a “first shot” strategy

The UK will move to a “first shot” strategy. The priority will be to give at-risk groups one shot of vaccine, even if it means delaying the second dose. That’s a massive change of strategy.

Here is further information.  And here, via Peter Whittaker.  C’mon American public health establishment get your act together, I don’t see that very many of you have had the stones to endorse such a change.

*The Trouble with Tribbles*

Yes, another Star Trek episode.  This one was striking for its explicit Malthusianism (!).  The tribbles increase “arithmetically,” to use Malthus’s term — Spock notes that one tribble (bisexually) breeds on average ten tribbles a mere twelve hours later.  And what is it that the tribbles end up doing?  Trying to eat away a fixed supply of grain.  Yes, grain.  Might the tribbles exercise Malthusian moral restraint by opting for a later age of marriage and reproduction?  No, they are born pregnant.  Again, as Malthus suggests, a plague (poisoning) intervenes.

The racialization of international trade preferences

…we find that white individuals have become less supportive of trade than minorities and that whites are more likely than minorities to favor trade with highly similar countries. We suggest that minority support for trade is due to four well‐documented differences in the psychological predispositions of whites and minorities in the United States. Minorities have lower levels of racial prejudice, are lower in social dominance, and express less nationalism than whites. At the same time, there is evidence of rising ingroup racial consciousness among whites. Each of these characteristics has been independently linked to trade support in a direction encouraging greater support for trade among minorities. As the United States grows ever closer to becoming a “majority minority” nation, the racialization of trade attitudes may stimulate shifts in the likely future of America’s trade relationships.

That is from a new paper by Diana Mutz, Edward D. Mansfield, and Eunij Kim.  Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Why bitcoin will not take over the world

Yes it is here to stay, and it is not a bubble, but…here is one part of the argument:

If you hold or trade with a stablecoin, you incur several risks. First, the stablecoin peg to the dollar may someday be broken, an old problem with pegged exchange rates that Milton Friedman often warned about. Second, to the extent stablecoins and other crypto assets become a major part of the financial system, they will attract more regulatory interest. That in turn will limit many of their advantages over the traditional bank sector. The U.S. government does not want a financial system that evolves outside the purview of the Federal Reserve, FDIC and other regulatory institutions.

Third, the formal banking sector will improve, for instance by moving to more rapid clearing, or by introducing electronic reserve currencies. With the latter, you could transfer your electronically-based dollars within the accounting system of the central bank, and achieve a non-intermediated transfer without resorting to crypto. It is not obvious that crypto will be the market winner once more mainstream institutions learn some lessons from the success of crypto.

And in sum:

The more utopian scenarios for crypto, whether proponents realize it or not, rely on the notion that crypto remains simultaneously fringe and mainstream. That will be a hard trick to pull off.

Your rebuttals, and more, are considered at the link to my latest Bloomberg column.

Tuesday assorted links

Wise Canadians

On December 12 I wrote:

We should vaccinate 6 million people with first dose NOW. It is deadly cautious to hold second dose in *reserve*. Supply chain will be ok and the exact timing of the second dose is not magical and likely not critical.

Modelling by a group at the University of Toronto confirmed.

Ashleigh Tuite, an epidemiologist at U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health….said she and her colleagues projected that frontloading vaccine doses would avert between 34 and 42 per cent more symptomatic coronavirus infections, compared with a strategy of keeping half the shipments in reserve.

“It makes much more sense to just get as many people their first doses as soon as possible,” Dr. Tuite said.

…everyone should get the second dose on schedule, but if supply issues delay that injection by a week or two, it shouldn’t hamper how well the vaccines work.

According to Abigail Bimman at Global News, Ontario will now switch to getting as many first doses out as possible:

NEW: Ontario is changing its vaccine policy and no longer reserving second doses, but getting all of the initial 90k out the door- they expect to finish them in the “next several days” – Health Minister’s office tell @globalnew. Change due to confidence in supply chain.

It’s not all the way to first doses first but it’s a minimally risky, smart move. Indeed, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan and British Columbia already have said that they won’t hold back first doses.

The United States should listen to the wise Canadians.

Silvio Gesell’s “stamped vaccine” plan

There are now so many more vaccines distributed than injected into American arms.  How about a simple incentive scheme?  Let’s say you are in group 1A.  You have to come get your vaccine by Jan.3 (??), or otherwise you lose your place in line and are put back into the general pool.  (I’ve heard one report from Israel that non-vaccination leads to cancellation of your health insurance, but this I cannot confirm.)  We can then move onto group 1B more quickly.

And if you are willing to postpone your second shot for three months…

*The Way We Were* (with broad spoilers)

Oddly, I had never seen this 1973 movie before, and found a number of points noteworthy.  It is a more effective critique of the “white male patriarchy” than today’s performative yelpings, and makes the latter look, if anything, both hysterical and understudied.  And imagine a two hour movie which consists of little more than having two major stars — Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford — talk to each other.  I miss this in more recent Hollywood cinema.  And remember when movies generated hit songs?  By today’s standards, the sexual relationship between the two starts with her raping him while he is drunk (with implicit commentary on the famous bedroom scene from “It Happened One Night.”)  Circa 1973, the main sympathetic character (Streisand) could be shown as a fan of Lenin and Stalin (and Roosevelt) without anyone being too offended.  Nor does anyone mind that she smokes, drinks (more than a sip), and gets into scuffles while pregnant.  The core substantive takeaway from the plot seems to be “Jewish people should marry their own,” which is not the brand of segregationism that has remained popular today.

As stated, this movie for me was a first-time watch rather than a rewatch, but still it felt like a rewatch, as the most interesting elements were all a look into the past.  The more our world moves away from its previous moorings, the more “what to rewatch” will become an important skill.  Or what to reread, or what to listen to again.  This topic and this skill is underdiscussed.  When it comes to the past, increasingly “the uncensored” is more interesting than “high quality” per se.

Overall this movie is more interesting now than it was at the time of its release, so I guess I am glad I waited.  Here is an OK but quite cliched 1973 review of the film.  And here is Ebert from 1973.

Monday assorted links

1. Fund people not projects.

2. Vitalik year end notes from Singapore.  Outside of crypto, Vitalik is perhaps the most underrated thinker, period.

3. What the Brexit trade deal does.

4. Megan McArdle on dangerous group think in the public health establishment: “…the discussion of whether to prioritize essential workers was anything but robust. The committee left only 10 minutes for it, during which not one of those 14 intelligent and dedicated health professionals suggested adopting the plan that kills the fewest people. Nor did anyone run out of time to make that point. Ten minutes was actually a little too much for what turned out to be a pro forma opportunity to get on the record endorsing the plan, and particularly its emphasis on racial and economic equity in health care.”

5. “I assign a 90% probability to at least one of the new variants being >30% more transmissible

The Omission-Commission Error is Deadly

Britain will start a human challenge trial in January.

The Sun: Imperial College said its joint human challenge study involves volunteers aged 18 to 30, with the project starting in January – and results expected in May.

Initially, 90 volunteers will be given a dose of an experimental nasal vaccine.

They’ll then be deliberately infected with Covid-19.

But this is really just the first part of an excessively cautious study designed to “discover the smallest amount of virus it takes to cause a person to develop Covid-19 infection.” Moreover:

… it’s taken a few months to come to fruition, as before any research could begin the study had to be approved by ethics committees and regulators.

The omission-commission error is deadly. Notice that giving less than one hundred volunteers the virus (commission) is ethically fraught and takes months of debate before one can get approval. But running a large randomized controlled trial in which tens of thousands of people are exposed to the virus is A-ok even though more people may be infected in the latter case than the former and even though faster clinical trials could save many lives. Ethical madness.