Sunday, July 17, 2016

A new old way to get rid of bad habits

Every January for the past decade, Jessica Irish of Saline, Mich., has made the same New Year’s Resolution: to “cut out late night snacking and lose 30 pounds.” Like millions of Americans, Ms. Irish, 31, usually makes it about two weeks.

But this year is different.

“I’ve already lost 18 pounds,” she said, “and maintained my diet more consistently than ever. Even more amazing — I rarely even think about snacking at night anymore.”

Ms. Irish credits a new wearable device called Pavlok for doing what years of diets, weight-loss programs, expensive gyms and her own willpower could not. Whenever she takes a bite of the foods she wants to avoid, like chocolate or Cheez-Its, she uses the Pavlok to give herself a lightning-quick electric shock.

“Every time I took a bite, I zapped myself,” she said. “I did it five times on the first night, two times on the second night, and by the third day I didn’t have any cravings anymore.”

As the name suggests, the $199 Pavlok, worn on the wrist, uses the classic theory of Pavlovian conditioning to create a negative association with a specific action. Next time you smoke, bite your nails or eat junk food, one tap of the device or a smartphone app will deliver a shock. The zap lasts only a fraction of a second, though the severity of the shock is up to you. It can be set between 50 volts, which feels like a strong vibration, and 450 volts, which feels like getting stung by a bee with a stinger the size of an ice pick. (By comparison, a police Taser typically releases about 50,000 volts.) ...

Despite the potential for pain and the lack of science backing a long-term effect, user feedback on Facebook groups and message boards has been enthusiastic about the device, especially as a last resort for problems like overeating and binge drinking.

Bud Hennekes, 24, a blogger in St. Louis, said he had used Pavlok to kick a nearly two-pack-a-day cigarette habit. “When I tried to quit before, I still had the craving to smoke,” he said. “When I used Pavlok, the cravings completely went away. I don’t know if it’s science or a placebo effect or what, and I don’t really care because it worked.”
--Jennifer Jolly, NYT, on better living through electricity

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Median times from submission to acceptance at finance journals

The traditional time metric that nearly all journals report is the mean/median time of a single round review. ... Since the large majority of articles are rejected, the mean single round turnaround time can be thought of (metaphorically anyway) as the mean/median rejection time. ...

However, if we place ourselves in the shoes of an Assistant Professor facing a fixed tenure deadline, they won’t be successful if they submit a tenure dossier with a long list of rejections – they need acceptances. They want to know the mean/median acceptance time. That is, the mean/median time that eventually-published articles take from first-round submission to final round acceptance. Editors have pointed out to me that they don’t control how long authors take to revise their paper, which is certainly true. But journals do influence the mean/median author revision time by how many and what kind of revision demands are typically made, by the editor’s typical revision instructions, etc. ...

I collect the publication history of articles published in the “top-20” academic finance journals (defined below) and in “top-tier” academic business journals (defined below) from 2012 to 2015. ...

I find that the median acceptance times of the top-five general-interest finance journals from fastest-to-slowest are Journal of Financial Economics (JFE): 9.9 months; Journal of Financial and Quantitative Analysis (JFQA): 10.6 months; Review of Finance (RF): 11.7 months; Review of Financial Studies (RFS): 15.5 months; and Journal of Finance (JF): 19.8 months. The mean acceptance times are similar and have the same ordering as the medians.

Trump often retweets white supremacists

Two weeks ago [in January 2016] the leading Republican candidate for US President was widely criticized for retweeting a white supremacist Twitter user with the name “@WhiteGenocideTM,” whose linked website sung Hitler’s praises.

It turns out that’s not an anomaly, it's a pattern. Inspired by a new Twitter account that tweets out the bios of anyone Donald Trump retweets (because they’re often remarkable), we went and looked up those people he's introducing to his audience of 5 million+ Twitter followers. In order to learn more about them, we analyzed the networks of people that those people he retweeted are following on Twitter, using Little Bird's influencer discovery and social network analysis software.

It turns out that Donald Trump mostly retweets white supremacists saying nice things about him. At least so far this week’s that’s how it's gone. This isn’t one person, of the last 21 accounts retweeted by@RealDonaldTrump so far this week, our automated analysis of their accounts finds that:
  • 28% of them follow at least one of the top 50 White Nationalist accounts on Twitter (6 of 21)
  • 62% of them follow at least 3 people who’ve used hashtag #WhiteGenocide lately (13 of 21)
--Marshall Kirkpatrick, Little Bird, on the company the Donald keeps

Monday, July 11, 2016

To prevent cramps, eat spicy

A shot of spicy liquid—think wasabi or hot chilies—may be a far more effective treatment [for cramps] than an energy drink or a banana. All it took was a Nobel Prize winner experiencing some untimely cramps while sea kayaking a decade ago for people to begin to understand that the causes of muscle cramps may not have much to do with muscles at all. ...

If muscles cramp simply because they are weary and poorly nourished, why do our muscles cramp when we are lying in bed doing nothing? Why would an elite triathlete like Craig Alexander, a former Ironman world champion, occasionally suffer from leg cramps in the first minutes of a race, when he was fully hydrated and the opposite of exhausted? ...

...cramps were on Dr. [Rod] MacKinnon’s mind. After perusing the existing research he and Dr. [Bruce] Bean hypothesized that they could modify the nervous system, including the motor neurons controlling muscle, by applying a strong sensory input and by stimulating receptors in the mouth and esophagus—which is how scientists describe ingesting pungent tasting foods. The pungent-taste overloads nerve receptors, producing a kind of numbing effect. ...

Using himself as a lab rat, Dr. MacKinnon began concocting spicy drinks in his kitchen with varying amounts of ginger and cinnamon and trying to induce cramps with electrical impulses. Over the course of the next decade, he grew convinced his hunch was correct. It was harder to induce the cramps after indulging in the spicy concoctions.

A series of randomized, scientific studies followed. The subjects produced results similar to what Dr. MacKinnon had experienced. Those studies were presented last year at meetings of the American Academy of Neurology and the American College of Sports Medicine.

The great irony of all this is athletes for years had already been trying to avoid cramps not simply with water and bananas but also with pungent liquids, such as juice from pickles, beets or sour cherries. They drank the pickle juice believing its high sodium content would replace an important electrolyte, and they drank the beet and cherry juice because they are rich in antioxidants that athletes thought could help prevent cramping.

The idea was to get those ingredients into the bloodstream and muscles. In some cases, the pickle, beet and cherry juice worked, but in the view of Dr. MacKinnon and a growing number of other scientists, not because the nutrients were reaching their muscles since research showed their blood content was largely unchanged. ...

...Dr. MacKinnon, working with biotech entrepreneur Christoph Westphal, launched the company Flex Pharma Inc., which went public in 2015.

Earlier this year, the company brought to market Hotshot, a mix of ginger, cinnamon and capsicum—spicy pepper plants—that comes in 1.7 ounce bottles.
--Matthew Futterman, WSJ, on another reason to eat kimchi

Police aren't more likely to shoot blacks, but are more likely to use force

A new study confirms that black men and women are treated differently in the hands of law enforcement. They are more likely to be touched, handcuffed, pushed to the ground or pepper-sprayed by a police officer, even after accounting for how, where and when they encounter the police.

But when it comes to the most lethal form of force — police shootings — the study finds no racial bias.

“It is the most surprising result of my career,” said Roland G. Fryer Jr., the author of the study and a professor of economics at Harvard. The study examined more than a thousand shootings in 10 major police departments, in Texas, Florida and California. ...

Mr. Fryer is the youngest African-American to receive tenure at Harvard and the first one to receive a John Bates Clark medal, a prize given to the most promising American economist under 40. ...

In officer-involved shootings in these cities, officers were more likely to fire their weapons without having first been attacked when the suspects were white. Black and white civilians involved in police shootings were equally likely to have been carrying a weapon. Both of these results undercut the idea that the police wield lethal force with racial bias. ...

But this line of analysis included only encounters in which a shooting took place. A more fundamental question still remained: In the tense moments when a shooting may occur, are police officers more likely to fire if the suspect is black? ...

...in the arena of “shoot” or “don’t shoot,” Mr. Fryer found that, in tense situations, officers in Houston were about 20 percent less likely to shoot a suspect if the suspect was black. ...

...the results were largely the same whether or not Mr. Fryer used information from narratives provided by officers. ...

And in less extreme uses of force, Mr. Fryer found ample racial differences, which is in accord with the public’s perception and other studies.

That gap, adjusted for suspect behavior and other factors, was surprisingly consistent across many different levels of force. Black suspects were 18 percent more likely to be pushed up against a wall, 16 percent more likely to be handcuffed without being arrested and 18 percent more likely to be pushed to the ground.

Even when the police said that civilians were compliant, blacks experienced more force. ...

As an economist, Mr. Fryer wonders if the difference between lethal force — where he did not find racial disparities — and nonlethal force — where he did — might be related to costs. Officers face great costs, legal and psychological, when they unnecessarily fire their weapons. But excessive use of lesser force is rarely tracked or punished. ...

For Mr. Fryer, who has spent much of his career studying ways society can close the racial achievement gap, the failure to punish excessive everyday force is an important contributor to young black disillusionment.
--Quoctrung Bui and Amanda Cox, NYT, on where the differences are

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The loudest sound ever recorded

On 27 August 1883, the Earth let out a noise louder than any it has made since.

It was 10:02 AM local time when the sound emerged from the island of Krakatoa, which sits between Java and Sumatra in Indonesia. It was heard 1,300 miles away in the Andaman and Nicobar islands (“extraordinary sounds were heard, as of guns firing”); 2,000 miles away in New Guinea and Western Australia (“a series of loud reports, resembling those of artillery in a north-westerly direction”); and even 3,000 miles away in the Indian Ocean island of Rodrigues, near Mauritius (“coming from the eastward, like the distant roar of heavy guns.”) In all, it was heard by people in over 50 different geographical locations, together spanning an area covering a thirteenth of the globe.

Think, for a moment, just how crazy this is. If you’re in Boston and someone tells you that they heard a sound coming from New York City, you’re probably going to give them a funny look. But Boston is a mere 200 miles from New York. What we’re talking about here is like being in Boston and clearly hearing a noise coming from Dublin, Ireland. ... This is the most distant sound that has ever been heard in recorded history.

So what could possibly create such an earth-shatteringly loud bang? A volcano on Krakatoa had just erupted with a force so great that it tore the island apart, emitting a plume of smoke that reached 17 miles into the atmosphere, according to a geologist who witnessed it. ...

The human threshold for pain is near 130 decibels, and if you had the misfortune of standing next to a jet engine, you’d experience a 150 decibel sound. (A 10 decibel increase is perceived by people as sounding roughly twice as loud.) The Krakatoa explosion registered 172 decibels at 100 miles from the source. This is so astonishingly loud, that it’s inching up against the limits of what we mean by “sound.” ...

...there’s a limit to how loud a sound can get. At some point, the fluctuations in air pressure are so large that the low pressure regions hit zero pressure—a vacuum—and you can’t get any lower than that. This limit happens to be about 194 decibels for a sound in Earth’s atmosphere. Any louder, and the sound is no longer just passing through the air, it’s actually pushing the air along with it, creating a pressurized burst of moving air known as a shock wave.

Closer to Krakatoa, the sound was well over this limit, producing a blast of high pressure air so powerful that it ruptured the eardrums of sailors 40 miles away.

Over 3,000 miles into its journey, the wave of pressure grew too quiet for human ears to hear, but it continued to sweep onward, reverberating for days across the globe. The atmosphere was ringing like a bell, imperceptible to us but detectable by our instruments. ...

Six hours and 47 minutes after the Krakatoa explosion, a spike of air pressure was detected in Calcutta. By 8 hours, the pulse reached Mauritius in the west and Melbourne and Sydney in the east. By 12 hours, St. Petersburg noticed the pulse, followed by Vienna, Rome, Paris, Berlin, and Munich. By 18 hours the pulse had reached New York, Washington DC, and Toronto. Amazingly, for as many as 5 days after the explosion, weather stations in 50 cities around the globe observed this unprecedented spike in pressure re-occuring like clockwork, approximately every 34 hours. That is roughly how long it takes sound to travel around the entire planet.

In all, the pressure waves from Krakatoa circled the globe three to four times in each direction.
--Aatish Bhatia, Nautilus, on the sound heard around the world

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Decision fatigue in the White House

There is time, too, for fantasy about what life would be like outside the White House. Mr. Emanuel, who is now the mayor of Chicago but remains close to the president, said he and Mr. Obama once imagined moving to Hawaii to open a T-shirt shack that sold only one size (medium) and one color (white). Their dream was that they would no longer have to make decisions.

During difficult White House meetings when no good decision seemed possible, Mr. Emanuel would sometimes turn to Mr. Obama and say, “White.” Mr. Obama would in turn say, “Medium.”

Friday, July 1, 2016

Where are the liberal professors?

In 1989, roughly 40 percent of professors were moderate and 40 percent were liberal; the remaining 20 percent were conservative. By 2014, liberal identifiers jumped to 60 percent, with moderates declining to 30 percent and conservatives to just 10 percent.

But the story turns out to be more complicated than this, since the shift left is far from uniform. ...

Faculty members in New England are far more liberal than their counterparts anywhere else in the nation, even controlling for discipline and school type. In 1989, the number of liberals compared with conservatives on college campuses was about 2 to 1 nationwide; that figure was almost 5 to 1 for New England schools. By 2014, the national figure was 6 to 1; for those teaching in New England, the figure was 28 to 1.

Even the professoriate in the far west — the liberal “left coast” — saw the ratio of liberal to conservative professors jump only to 6 to 1, from about 3 to 1, during that time. Those teaching in other regions, from the Plains to the Southeast, saw far smaller changes, to 3 to 1, up from 1 to 1, on average. ...

...outside New England, social science professors during the period in question became more liberal by a factor of about 4, whereas those in New England shifted by a factor of 25. ...

Interestingly, the one region that bucks the national liberal trend is not the South (as some might assume) but rather the Rocky Mountain region: Idaho, Montana, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. Here, between 1989 and 2014, the liberal to conservative professor ratio dropped to 1.5 to 1, from 2 to 1.
--Samuel Abrams, NYT, on the soup that I swim in

The Yale-trained psychiatrist who specializes in diagnosing demon possession

I’m a man of science and a lover of history; after studying the classics at Princeton, I trained in psychiatry at Yale and in psychoanalysis at Columbia. That background is why a Catholic priest had asked my professional opinion, which I offered pro bono, about whether this woman was suffering from a mental disorder. ... So I was inclined to skepticism. But my subject’s behavior exceeded what I could explain with my training. She could tell some people their secret weaknesses, such as undue pride. She knew how individuals she’d never known had died, including my mother and her fatal case of ovarian cancer. Six people later vouched to me that, during her exorcisms, they heard her speaking multiple languages, including Latin, completely unfamiliar to her outside of her trances. This was not psychosis; it was what I can only describe as paranormal ability. I concluded that she was possessed. ...

The priest who had asked for my opinion of this bizarre case was the most experienced exorcist in the country at the time, an erudite and sensible man. I had told him that, even as a practicing Catholic, I wasn’t likely to go in for a lot of hocus-pocus. “Well,” he replied, “unless we thought you were not easily fooled, we would hardly have wanted you to assist us.”

So began an unlikely partnership. For the past two-and-a-half decades and over several hundred consultations, I’ve helped clergy from multiple denominations and faiths to filter episodes of mental illness — which represent the overwhelming majority of cases — from, literally, the devil’s work. ...

Unfortunately, not all clergy involved in this complex field are as cautious as the priest who first approached me. ... This is perhaps why exorcism has a negative connotation in some quarters. People with psychological problems should receive psychological treatment.

But I believe I’ve seen the real thing. Assaults upon individuals are classified either as “demonic possessions” or as the slightly more common but less intense attacks usually called “oppressions.” A possessed individual may suddenly, in a type of trance, voice statements of astonishing venom and contempt for religion, while understanding and speaking various foreign languages previously unknown to them. The subject might also exhibit enormous strength or even the extraordinarily rare phenomenon of levitation. (I have not witnessed a levitation myself, but half a dozen people I work with vow that they’ve seen it in the course of their exorcisms.) He or she might demonstrate “hidden knowledge” of all sorts of things — like how a stranger’s loved ones died, what secret sins she has committed, even where people are at a given moment. These are skills that cannot be explained except by special psychic or preternatural ability.

I have personally encountered these rationally inexplicable features, along with other paranormal phenomena. ...

As I see it, the evidence for possession is like the evidence for George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware. In both cases, written historical accounts with numerous sound witnesses testify to their accuracy.
--Richard Gallagher, Washington Post, on real-life exorcism. HT: ML

Friday, June 24, 2016

Trump's attack on the "Mexican" judge has a basis in a liberal worldview

Federal Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who was born in Indiana to parents of Mexican origin and belongs to an association of lawyers of Mexican origin, is sitting on a case in the Southern District of California that charges fraud against Trump University. Donald Trump in recent days has attracted much attention by suggesting that Judge Curiel should be disqualified for bias because the judge’s rulings are adverse to Mr. Trump and because, in campaigning for the presidency, the candidate has criticized Mexicans and proposed building a wall on the southwest U.S. border.

Mr. Trump’s claim against Judge Curiel is both baseless and squalid, but some in the chorus of critics are not themselves entirely without fault. ...

After all, suggesting that a judge would allow his ethnic ancestry to govern his rulings is simply unacceptable in America.

Or is it?

Following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February, President Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. When some on the left questioned the nomination of a man in his 60s who is of the Jewish faith, the president conceded that Judge Garland is indeed “a white guy, but he’s a really outstanding jurist.” Note the “but,” which may well have been inserted for the benefit of the questioner, and perhaps in a mild jest, but it is nonetheless there, whether meant to represent the president’s values or those of his interlocutor.

Before her 2009 elevation to the Supreme Court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor once gave a speech saying that she hoped “a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” The president who appointed her said he was seeking judges who have “empathy” with those who appear before them.

Such pronouncements reflect how identity politics have become, increasingly and inappropriately, a part of the conversation surrounding courts and judges.

Whether they know it or not, judges demonstrate symbolically every time they mount the bench that personal considerations have no place in deciding cases. Their black robes are supposed to suggest that judges are all the same ... Donald Trump’s claims may be the dirty underside of what we get when we abandon that aspiration, but they are by no means the whole of it.

Perhaps the Chinese don't take such a long view of history

The impact of the French Revolution? “Too early to say.”

Thus did Zhou Enlai – in responding to questions in the early 1970s about the popular revolt in France almost two centuries earlier – buttress China’s reputation as a far-thinking, patient civilisation.

The former premier’s answer has become a frequently deployed cliché, used as evidence of the sage Chinese ability to think long-term – in contrast to impatient westerners.

The trouble is that Zhou was not referring to the 1789 storming of the Bastille in a discussion with Richard Nixon during the late US president’s pioneering China visit. Zhou’s answer related to events only three years earlier – the 1968 students’ riots in Paris, according to Nixon’s interpreter at the time.

At a seminar in Washington to mark the publication of Henry Kissinger’s book, On China, Chas Freeman, a retired foreign service officer, sought to correct the long-standing error.

“I distinctly remember the exchange. There was a mis­understanding that was too delicious to invite correction,” said Mr Freeman.

He said Zhou had been confused when asked about the French Revolution and the Paris Commune. “But these were exactly the kinds of terms used by the students to describe what they were up to in 1968 and that is how Zhou understood them.” ...

Dr Barme added that Chinese researchers with access to the foreign ministry archives in Beijing said that the records made clear that Zhou was referring to the 1968 riots in Paris. ...

The oft-quoted Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times”, does not exist in China itself, scholars say.
--Richard McGregor, Financial Times, on a gaffe spun wise

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Standing desks won't help you lose weight

So for the new experiment, which was published this month in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, researchers affiliated with the Physical Activity and Weight Management Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh rounded up 74 healthy volunteers. Most were in their mid-20s, of normal weight, and with some acquaintance with office life. ...

Throughout, the volunteers wore masks that precisely measured their energy expenditure, which means how many calories they were using.

Unsurprisingly, sitting was not very taxing. The volunteers generally burned about 20 calories during their 15 minutes of sitting, whether they were typing or staring at a television screen.

More unexpected, standing up was barely more demanding. While standing for 15 minutes, the volunteers burned about 2 additional calories compared to when they sat down. ...

Over all, in fact, the researchers concluded, someone who stood up while working instead of sitting would burn about 8 or 9 extra calories per hour. (Just for comparison, a single cup of coffee with cream and sugar contains around 50 calories.)

But walking was a different matter. When the volunteers walked for 15 minutes, even at a fairly easy pace, they burned about three times as many calories as when they sat or stood.
--Gretchen Reynolds, NYT, on why I have a treadmill desk

Friday, June 17, 2016

How bad is London's weather?

Though Britain suffered through the Blitz, it didn’t experience the devastation that befell Germany and France. [Robert] Tombs [author of The English and Their History] cites a Gallup poll from 1941 that says Londoners were more depressed by the weather than the bombing.
--Kabir Chibber, Quartz, on what's worse than Nazi bombs

Monday, June 13, 2016

Organic food isn't better for the environment

Organic farming is sold as good for the environment. This is correct for a single farm field: organic farming uses less energy, emits less greenhouse gasses, nitrous oxide and ammonia and causes less nitrogen leeching than a conventional field. But each organic field yields much, much less. So, to grow the same amount of wheat, spinach or strawberries, you need much more land. That means that average organic produce results in the emission of about as many greenhouse gasses as conventional produce; and about 10 per cent more nitrous oxide, ammonia and acidification. Worse, to produce equivalent quantities, organic farms need to occupy 84 per cent more land – land which can’t be used for forests and genuine nature reserves. For example, to produce the amount of food America does today, but organically, would require increasing its farmland by the size of almost two United Kingdoms. That is the equivalent of eradicating all parklands and wild lands in the lower 48 states.

But surely organics avoid pesticides? No. Organic farming can use any pesticide that is “natural”. This includes copper sulphate, which has resulted in liver disease in vineyard sprayers in France. Pyrethrin is another organic pesticide; one study shows a 3.7-fold increase in leukaemia among farmers who handled pyrethrins compared to those who had not.

Conventional food, it’s true, has higher pesticide contamination. Although it is still very low, this is a definite benefit of organics. However, using a rough upper estimate by the head of the US Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Toxicology, all conventional pesticide residues may cause an extra 20 cancer deaths per year in America.

This pales in comparison to the impact of organics. If all of the United States were to go organic, the cost would likely be around $200 billion annually from lower productivity. This is money we can’t spend on hospitals, pensioner care, schools, or infrastructure.

Such economic impacts also have life and death consequences. Research shows that when a nation becomes $15 million poorer, it costs one “statistical” life, because people are able to spend less on health care and good food. This means that going organic in the US will kill more than 13,000 people each year. Scaling these findings to the UK would indicate that while extra pesticides in conventional cause perhaps four deaths each year, the UK going completely organic would cost £22 billion per year, resulting in more than 2,000 extra deaths each year.
--Bjørn Lomborg, The Telegraph, on the hidden costs of organic food. HT: MM

Friday, June 10, 2016

Artificial meteor showers might become the new fireworks

When the 2020 Summer Olympics begin in Tokyo, attendees might find themselves looking up into the night sky to see an unprecedented public spectacle. If an event production firm called ALE Co. has its way, an artificial meteor shower will begin, a spray of tiny manufactured objects falling from space and igniting in the Earth’s atmosphere upon reentry.

These artificial meteors will be dropped by satellite.

Mixed in amongst the television signals and invisible communications relays bouncing down from space will be minuscule particles, only a few millimeters in size, made from elements such as lithium, calcium, strontium, rubidium, and copper, each of which releases a different hue when burned. ...

Like planet-spanning showerheads of light, such shows could augment a presidential inauguration, a state funeral, an international holiday, or even be enlisted for narrative purposes. Ten years from now, a Christmas celebration could involve a historical reenactment of the Star of Bethlehem, using a combination of Iridium flares and artificial shooting stars; famous meteors from myth and history could be recreated at appropriate times of year.
--Geoff Manaugh, The Atlantic, on upping the ante on spectacle

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Neuroscience techniques can't even help us understand Donkey Kong

...the MOS 6502 microchip contains 3510 transistors, runs Space Invaders, and wouldn’t even be the most complex object in my pocket. We know very little about how the brain works, but we understand the chip completely.

So, Eric Jonas and Konrad Kording wondered, what would happen if they studied the chip in the style of neuroscientists? How would the approaches that are being used to study the complex squishy brain fare when used on a far simpler artificial processor? ...

Even though the duo knew everything about the chip—the state of each transistor and the voltage along every wire—their inferences were trivial at best and seriously misleading at worst. ...

Last week, the duo uploaded their paper, titled “Could a neuroscientist understand a microprocessor?” after a classic from 2002. It reads like both a playful thought experiment (albeit one backed up with data) and a serious shot across the bow. And although it has yet to undergo formal peer review, other neuroscientists have already called it a “landmark paper”, a “watershed moment”, and “the paper we all had in our minds but didn't dare to write”. ...

Rather than working with an actual chip, Jonas and Kording used a simulation, albeit one accurate enough to run classic games like Donkey Kong, Space Invaders, and Pitfall. That gave them experimental omniscience and omnipotence—they knew everything and could tweak anything. For example, they could disable each of the chip’s transistors one at a time. And by doing so, they found several that were essential for booting up all three games, and others that were essential for just one.

Brain scientists have doing something similar for centuries, either by studying people with localized brain damage or by temporarily shutting down specific brain regions. Through such studies, they’ve labelled different areas as memory centers or language centers or emotional centers. But Jonas and Kording’s work shows why such inferences can be deceptive. They didn’t find “Donkey Kong transistors” or “Space Invaders transistors”; instead, they found components that carry out basic processes that just so happen to be important for those particular games.

They also tried out five other common approaches—the equivalents of analyzing individual neurons, or averaging activity in a small region as in fMRI brain-scanning, or taking a god-like view and look for patterns across the entire brain. None of these told the team anything useful about how the chip works. ...

To move forward, Jonas says that neuroscientists need to put more effort into testing their theories about the brain. “There are a lot of theories about how different parts of the brain might function, but they don’t make falsifiable predictions. They have so many different knobs you can turn that they can be arbitrarily extended to fit arbitrary bits of data. It’s very hard to kick any of these ideas to the curb.”
--Ed Yong, The Atlantic, on the blind men and the elephant

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The movie to broadcast after a nuclear strike

...to the passing motorist, there is nothing about Wood Norton Hall to identify it as the site of the BBC's secret nuclear bunker. ...

While the Cabinet would be secreted away in another bunker in Corsham, Wiltshire, pre-recorded tapes kept at Wood Norton would be broadcast across the nation in the minutes before any bomb was dropped. ...

Thankfully, the bunker was never needed, although secret documents have revealed that 100 days of broadcasting was lined up and ready to play in the event of a nuclear attack. A mix of comedy, drama and religious programmes, as well as Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, was kept at the ready until 1993.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Why America is bad at building new infrastructure

Sometimes small stories capture large truths. So it is with the fiasco that is the repair of the Anderson Memorial Bridge, connecting Boston and Harvard Square. Rehabilitation of the 232-foot bridge began in 2012, at an estimated cost of about $20 million; four years later, there is no end date in sight and the cost of the project is mushrooming, to $26.5 million at last count.

This glacial pace of implementation does not reflect the intrinsic technical difficulty of the task. For comparison, the Anderson Bridge itself was originally completed in just 11 months in 1912. General George Patton constructed nearly 40 times as much bridging in six months as American soldiers crossed the Rhine to win World War II. And even modern-day examples abound; for instance, in 2011, 14 bridges in Medford were fixed in just 10 weekends. ...

In order to adhere to strict historical requirements overseen by the Massachusetts Historical Commission, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation had to order special bricks, cast by a company in Maine, to meet special size and appearance specifications from the bridge’s inception in 1912.

...once construction had already started on the bridge, the contractor, Barletta Heavy Division, discovered that an existing water main would need to be relocated. With the subsequent change order and additional Massachusetts Water Resources Authority permitting processes, an additional 357 days were tacked on to the original contract completion date.

To cap it off, after resisting for years the inclusion of pedestrian underpasses in bridge rehabilitation, MassDOT changed course in 2014 and agreed to revise the design so as not to preclude the construction of an underpass in the future. The contractor then had to move a major utility pipe so that an underpass could fit underneath; meanwhile, another 256 days of delay were added to the project. The entire project is now 22 months behind schedule.

Delay, then, is at one level the result of bureaucratic ineptitude and the promiscuous distribution of the power to hold things up. At another level, it is the failure of leadership to insist on reasonable accountability to meet reasonable deadlines. Perhaps, at a deeper level, it is the failure of citizenry to hold government accountable for reasonable performance — a failure that may in part reflect a lowering of expectations as trust in government declines. ...

The Anderson Bridge is approximately one-sixth the length of the bridge Julius Caesar’s men built across the Rhine in 10 days in 55 BC. Caesar’s feat is admired not just for its technical mastery but also for its boldness. An allied tribe had offered boats to carry Caesar’s troops across the river, to avoid the difficult task of bridge-building. Yet Caesar rejected this offer, on the grounds that it would not be “fitting for the prestige of Rome.”
--Lawrence Summers and Rachel Lipson, Boston Globe, on American sclerosis

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Analytics: Short words are better in Scrabble

Nigeria is beating the West at its own word game, using a strategy that sounds like Scrabble sacrilege.

By relentlessly studying short words, this country of 500 languages has risen to dominate English’s top lexical contest. ...

Once, almost all of Scrabble’s champions hailed from North America or Europe. Most stuck to a similar “long word” strategy—mastering thousands of seven- and eight-letter plays like QUIXOTRY, a 365-point-move in American Michael Cresta’s record-breaking 830 point win in 2006. ...

Global competition and computer analytics have brought that sacred Scrabble shibboleth into question, exposing the hidden risks of big words.

Risk one: Every extra letter on the board is another opening for an opponent to land their own seven-letter blockbuster.

Risk two: Every letter played gets replaced by a random tile from the bag. A bad draw can—and often does—leave players stuck for several turns without vowels or decent letter combinations. After millions of computer-simulated games, Scrabble strategists have concluded that bad draws happen more frequently than previously assumed.

So while Scrabblers still fancy bingos, they increasingly hold off on other high-scoring moves, such as six-letter words, or seven-letter terms that only use six tiles from the rack. Instead, by spelling four- or five-letter words, a player can keep their most useful tiles—like E-D or I-N-G—for the next round, a strategy called rack management. ...

Also, thanks to a design quirk, the board is oddly generous to short words. Most of the bonus squares are just four or five letters apart. ...

Nigeria’s Scrabble ambitions date to the 1990s, when several local fans convinced the dictatorship of Gen. Sani Abacha to make the game an official sport, a designation that brings funding. Nigeria was ostracized from the world then. Scrabble offered one area where the country could redeem its image abroad.

Nowadays, the country of 187 million stages daylong tournaments in stadiums on an almost weekly basis, often with small prizes on the line. Dozens of Scrabble clubs scout high schools for talent, sometimes poaching players. Several of Nigeria’s 36 states have a Scrabble coach on the payrolls.

Of them, Prince Anthony Ikolo was the first to glimpse the potential of the shorter-word strategy. In the late 2000s, the university mathematician had two apps—Quackle and Maven—that let him simulate tens of thousands of possible game scenarios that would result from a given move. The data showed how often a long word would leave the player vulnerable to a counterstrike or a series of bad draws.
--Drew Hinshaw and Joe Parkinson, WSJ, on less being more. HT: Jeff Mosenkis. I also noticed for the first time that the WSJ has fully succumbed to the singular "their."

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Why Koreans don't have smelly armpits

With the weather getting warmer, one of the most common complaints heard from expats is that quality deodorant is near impossible to find in Korea. ... What’s with the lack of quality deodorant in Korea?

Basically, most Koreans don’t actually need deodorant.

Several years ago, scientists discovered a gene that was dubbed “ABCC11”. The team who discovered the gene found that it was a key determinant in whether a person will produce dry or wet earwax. Since then, it has also been discovered that people who produce “wet” ear wax also produce chemicals in their armpits that cause underarm odor when metabolized by bacteria. Those who produce dry ear wax lack these chemicals.

“This key gene is basically the single determinant of whether you do produce underarm odor or not,” Ian Day, a genetic epidemiologist at the University of Bristol, told livescience.com. ...

More than 97% of people who are of European or African descent have the version of the gene that causes smelly underarm sweat, while most East Asians and, according to the study, almost all Koreans do not. 30-50% of People from areas such as Southern Asia, the Pacific Islands, Central Asia, Asia Minor and indigenous Americans exhibit the mutation in their ABCC11 gene that saves them from stinky armpits as well.
--Jane Mahoney, 10 Magazine, on the genetic roots of B.O. HT: JC