Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Quote of the Day

Bad times have a scientific value. These are occasions a good learner would not miss.

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Monday, September 15, 2014

Human Evolution, Life History Theory, and the End of Biological Reproduction


Throughout primate history there have been three major life history transitions towards increasingly delayed sexual maturation and biological reproduction, as well as towards extended life expectancy. Monkeys reproduce later and live longer than do prosimians, apes reproduce later and live longer than do monkeys, and humans reproduce later and live longer than do apes. These life history transitions are connected to increased encephalization. During the last life history transition from apes to humans, increased encephalization co-evolved with increased dependence on cultural knowledge for energy acquisition. This led to a dramatic pressure for more energy investment in growth over current biological reproduction. Since the industrial revolution socioeconomic development has led to even more energy being devoted to growth over current biological reproduction. I propose that this is the beginning of an ongoing fourth major primate life history transition towards completely delayed biological reproduction and an extension of the evolved human life expectancy. I argue that the only fundamental difference between this primate life history transition and previous life history transitions is that this transition is being driven solely by cultural evolution, which may suggest some deeper evolutionary transition away from biological evolution is already in the process of occurring.

- Full paper here

Quote of the Day

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.

- Helen Keller

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Is Our Pursuit of Happiness Obscuring the More Important Goal of Alleviating Suffering?

These developments are detailed in Critical Perspectives in Happiness Research: The Birth of Modern Happiness by the Slovenian scholar Luka Zevnik, a book that contains much of interest, albeit carefully concealed behind the cant of critical theory. Among the theorising, he makes the nice point that most Indo-European words for “happy” (including the English) derive from words meaning good luck. It seems our ancestors associated happiness with a momentary gift of fortune. The absurd belief that it might instead be a near-permanent state achievable by all, Zevnik shows to be a unique quirk of contemporary western culture.

The folly of this belief is reflected in the statistics: as all these books point out, we have been getting steadily richer for a long time but our happiness gauge has refused to budge since around 1950. Although we have more stuff than our grandparents, we are no jollier for it. Which suggests that previous generations knew as much about the good life as we do. The test for the new “science of happiness”, therefore, is whether it reveals anything that might have caused your grandmother to raise an eyebrow.


Not all happiness self-help literature falls into this trap. For example, the psychologist Rick Hanson’s recent book Hardwiring Happiness is full of good sense. He has the modesty to admit that his advice is not new but drawn from a century of scholarship in humanistic psychology and a much longer tradition of Buddhist practice.

Hanson’s central claim is that we have evolved to focus on and remember negative events more than positive ones – which has historically aided our survival but now leaves us nervous wrecks. Contrary to our instincts, then, we should make an effort to focus on what is good. Citing the brain’s plasticity, he argues that we will thereby “hard-wire” ourselves to be happier. Although his thesis, when stripped of neuro-jargon, would be unlikely to surprise your grandmother, Hanson draws on his experience as a teacher and therapist to give advice that is lucid and practical.

More surprising to your grandmother would be the advice of the technology writer John Havens in his book Hacking Happiness. The statistics show that all our digital gadgets have failed to make us any more contented, and authors such as Dolan suggest we ought to be spending less time distracted by them. But Havens, in contrast, believes they are the key to a wellbeing revolution.

Most of us, he points out, are surrounded by sophisticated computing power most of the time, even if only the phone in your pocket. We could be using these devices to collect detailed data about ourselves: our moods, our reactions to particular events, progress towards our goals, etc. The apps for this could even bypass our own faulty judgment of our feelings and directly measure physiological markers such as our pulse, pupil dilation or stress hormones. Armed with this information, we would know better than anyone in history exactly when we are merry and why.

- More Here

Tellingly, the best advice in the entire book, or indeed any of these three how-to-be-happy books, was given to Havens by his mother: 

“There’s always someone worse off than you. Find them, help them, and you’ll feel better.”

Peter Thiel on Reditt

Is Palantir a front for the CIA?
Peter Thiel: No, the CIA is a front for Palantir.

Which are your favourite books? (both fiction and nonfiction)
Peter Thiel: Lots and lots of them... I like the genre of past books written about the future, e.g.:

- More Here

Quote of the Day

It is easy to hate and it is difficult to love. This is how the whole scheme of things works. All good things are difficult to achieve; and bad things are very easy to get.

- Confucius

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Wisdom Of The Week

Finding these small molecules — known as natural products — has traditionally been a slow affair. Microbes typically make natural products in exquisitely tiny amounts, and they don’t rely on a single gene to do so. Instead, microbes need dozens of different proteins made by different genes to craft a natural product. Dr. Fischbach and his colleagues set out five years ago to speed up the search. They wrote a software program that learns how to recognize the genes for natural products. Those genes tend to sit together in a cluster in a microbe’s DNA, and they are very similar to one another. By shuffling them into different combinations, microbes can produce a staggering range of molecules.

To train the software, Dr. Fischbach and his colleagues introduced it to 732 gene clusters that are already known to make natural products. As the software examined cluster after cluster, it came to recognize distinctive patterns. Eventually the program got so good that it could accurately pinpoint new gene clusters in DNA sequences it had never encountered before. The scientists wondered what would happen if they turned their well-educated computer loose on the microbes that live in our bodies.

They provided it with a vast genetic library created in an ongoing study called the Human Microbiome Project. The project scientists have collected microbial DNA from five different body sites on 242 healthy volunteers. From that genetic material, they were able to sequence the entire genomes of 2,340 different microbial species, most of which were new to science.

Searching those genomes, the computer spotted more than 14,000 gene clusters for natural products. Dr. Fischbach and his colleagues tossed out the gene clusters that were present in only a few people. They were left with 3,118 common ones.

Their study suggests that the human microbiome is a rich source of previously unknown natural products. “That wasn’t where I expected to find interesting drug-producing genes,” said Dr. Fischbach. “I was really taken aback.”

To show the potential medical value of these genes, Dr. Fischbach and his colleagues picked out a single cluster to study more closely. It belongs a species of bacteria called Lactobacillus gasseri. They reared huge numbers of the bacteria in the laboratory in order to isolate a speck of one its products, which they dubbed lactocillin.

They found that its structure is similar to a recently discovered antibiotic called LFF571, which the drug company Novartis is now testing in clinical trials. When Dr. Fischbach and his colleagues exposed several species of bacteria to lactobacillin, the microbes died, suggesting that it might also be a good antibiotic. The idea that our own bacteria are making potent antibiotics may seem strange. If the microbiome is churning out poison, how does it avoid killing itself?

Mining for Antibiotics, Right Under Our Noses

Quote of the Day

When Steve Jobs was running Apple, he was known to call journalists to either pat them on the back for a recent article or, more often than not, explain how they got it wrong. I was on the receiving end of a few of those calls. But nothing shocked me more than something Mr. Jobs said to me in late 2010 after he had finished chewing me out for something I had written about an iPad shortcoming.

“So, your kids must love the iPad?” I asked Mr. Jobs, trying to change the subject. The company’s first tablet was just hitting the shelves. “They haven’t used it,” he told me. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”

I’m sure I responded with a gasp and dumbfounded silence. I had imagined the Jobs’s household was like a nerd’s paradise: that the walls were giant touch screens, the dining table was made from tiles of iPads and that iPods were handed out to guests like chocolates on a pillow.

Nope, Mr. Jobs told me, not even close.

Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent

Friday, September 12, 2014

One Man Willingly Gave Google his Data. See What Happened Next.

"You would never believe what Google secretly knows about you,” says the headline in my Facebook feed. Six of my friends have so far re-shared it, each of whom expresses their dismay about yet another breach of privacy, inevitably containing sentence fragments such as “in a post-Snowden world” and calling Google’s storage and visualization of a user’s location data “creepy.”

This is where the narrative, one about privacy and underhanded dealings, splits from reality. Reality comes with consent screens like the one pictured to the right and a “Learn more” link. In reality the “creepy” part of this event isn’t Google’s visualization of consensually shared data on its Location History page, it’s the fact that the men and women whom I hold in high esteem as tech pundits and bloggers, apparently click consent screens without reading them. Given the publicity of Latitude on release and every subsequent rebranding and reshaping, and an average of 18 months between device onboarding for the average geek, it takes quite a willful ignorance to not be aware of this feature.

And a feature it is. For me and Google both. Google gets to know where I have been, allowing it to build the better mousetrap it needs to keep me entertained, engaged, and receptive to advertisement. Apparently this approach works: at $16 billion for the second quarter of this year, Google can’t complain about lack of sales.

I get tools and data for my own use as well. Unlike Facebook, OKCupid, Path, and others, Google even gives me a choice and access to my own data at any time. I can start or stop its collection, delete it in its entirety, and export it at any time.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.

- Carl Jung