Friday, August 31, 2012

Why Are Kenyans Still Brilliant Runners But Disappointing Footballers?

  • Running requires minimum start up cost. To run, all you really need is a good pair of shoes: in fact many future stars even started-off barefoot when they were children.The best training for distance running is piling up mile after mile; for football top performance requires intensive skills-based drills delivered by qualified coaches from a young age.
  • Success breeds success. Kenya’s top runners earn a very good living providing them, unlike some other folks back home, with a secure financial future. They are adored in their communities and a source of inspiration for the next generation.
  • The middlemen and support structures are less important in running. Team sports demand a more complex organization and the governance environment matters more (not exactly an area of Kenyan strength).
- More Here

Fitter Body = Fitter Brain

- More Here

Future Perfect - Steven Johnson's New Book !

Steven Johnson's new book Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age will be released September 18, first review here:

"From the drop in the crime rate to the increase in airline safety, the media tends often to focus its attention on large areas of social progress rather than on incremental progress in various areas of social and political change. As journalist Johnson points out in this fascinating and compelling book, as the character of our society changes and embraces social networking to a greater degree, the ways that we foster and measure progress are beginning to change dramatically. For example, the progress in reducing teen smoking didn’t arise out of larger economic, market, or political forces; the decline in teen smoking came from doctors, regulators, parents, and peers sharing vital information about the health risks of smoking. In the future, progress will not arise primarily out of government directives or policies but out of peer networks. A peer network builds tools that lets a network of neighbors identify problems or unmet needs in a community, while other networks propose and fund solutions to those problems. The decision-making process governing the spending of funds would be less hierarchical, and the task of identifying and solving community problems would be pushed out to the edges of the network, away from the central planners. Johnson points to Wikipedia as a prime example of a successful peer-to-peer network, for it has built itself progressively into a network of information that the community carefully monitors and administers. Stimulating and challenging, Johnson’s thought-provoking ideas steer us steadily into the future."

Pitting Your Faculties Against Concrete Problems

The relationship to handcraft is a beautiful one. You are related bodily to a solid block of metal letters, to the weight of the trays, to the adroitness of spacing, to the tempo and temper of the machine. You acquire some of the weight and solidity of the metal, the strength and power of the machine. Each triumph is a conquest by the body, fingers, muscles. You live with your hands, in acts of physical deftness.

You pit your faculties against concrete problems. The victories are concrete, definable, touchable. A page of perfect printing. You can touch the page you wrote. We exult in what we master and discover. Instead of using one’s energy in a void, against frustrations, in anger against publishers, I use it on the press, type, paper, a source of energy. Solving problems, technical, mechanical problems. Which can be solved.

If I pay no attention, then I do not lock the tray properly, and when I start printing the whole tray of letters falls into the machine. The words which first appeared in my head, out of the air, take body. Each letter has a weight. I can weigh each word again, to see if it is the right one.

I use soap boxes as shelves, to hold tools, paper, inks. I arrive loaded with old rags for the press, old towels for the hands, coffee, sugar.

The press mobilized our energies, and is a delight. At the end of the day you can see your work, weigh it. It is done. It exists.

- Excerpts from The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944

Quote of the Day

"Consider that all the wealth of the world can’t buy a liquid more pleasurable than water after intense thirst. Few objects bring more thrill than a recovered wallet or laptop lost on a train. The essence of life is some volatility."

- Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder

Thursday, August 30, 2012

How Children Succeed - Paul Tough

Review of Paul Tough's new book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.

“Psychologists and neuroscientists have learned a lot in the past few decades about where these skills come from and how they are developed,” Tough writes, and what they’ve discovered can be summed up in a sentence: Character is created by encountering and overcoming failure. In this absorbing and important book, Tough explains why American children from both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum are missing out on these essential experiences. The offspring of affluent parents are insulated from adversity, beginning with their baby-proofed nurseries and continuing well into their parentally financed young adulthoods. And while poor children face no end of challenges — from inadequate nutrition and medical care to dysfunctional schools and neighborhoods — there is often little support to help them turn these omnipresent obstacles into character-enhancing triumphs. The book illuminates the extremes of American childhood: for rich kids, a safety net drawn so tight it’s a harness; for poor kids, almost nothing to break their fall.

Though the title “How Children Succeed” makes the book sound like an instruction manual for parents, it’s really a guide to the ironies and perversities of income inequality in America. Tough, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, portrays a country of very privileged children and very poor ones, both deprived of the emotional and intellectual experi­ences that make for sturdy character. The political and economic consequences of our unbalanced society have been brought to the fore by debates about the causes of the Great Recession and the claims of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Paul Tough brings us news of the psychological effects of income inequality, through stories of the people who feel these effects most acutely: our children.

How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World - Christopher Steiner

Interview with Christopher Steiner, author of the new book Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World:

Q: You say that those who design algorithms are “the preeminent entrepreneurs of this generation.”
If you look at who has the biggest opportunity in society right now, who’s the most upwardly mobile and could just build something out of nothing, it’s developers. It’s people who are able to write code, not just any code—you’re average developer’s going to make a nice salary—but if that person innovates with code that “solves a problem” the opportunities are huge. This is why places like Y Combinator and all these other seed funding enterprises are booming. If you have the skills, the startup costs are basically zero. It’s your own time. This is not rocket science to use that old cliché; it’s a skill you get by putting time into the medium. It’s not something you need to learn at MIT.

Q:You title one of the later chapters of your book “Wall Street Versus Silicon Valley” Explain.
It’s incredible; people don’t realize how many software engineers Wall Street takes off the market. And in the past, when Silicon Valley companies went head to head with Wall Street firms, it was very hard to compete for the best engineers because the salary packages were so dissimilar, including the bonuses. And there was a prestige in working for a company like Goldman Sachs. So, I’ll just say, luckily for the economy some of that prestige has worn off. And I think that’s better all in all because the utility that someone with that kind of skill brings to the economy when they go to a place like Morgan is minimal--or even negative in the worst cases. Whereas if they go to a startup, they’re actually building the economy. They’re building GDP by affecting the most dynamic and growing segments of our economy. At Wall Street, they’re just moving money around.

Anytime you have so many layers of software--algorithms, really--nobody knows how one new layer will affect the other layers. That’s why good programmers and algorithm writers will create tests as they work. Google, for example, tests their algorithms a hundred million times before they ever hit the market. But at Knight, they wrote the program and sent it out. Apparently there were no tests because their algorithm just went bananas from the moment it was turned on. The danger with Wall Street, is that the whole thing’s so focused now on speed that there’s no time to write tests. This stuff literally happens every two weeks. Usually it’s not a $440 million loss, but there’s just so much risk built into the market right now that doesn’t have to be there.

Quote of the Day

"It's 9 am in the office - time for my daily medication. As usual, I slink off to the fire escape for my fix. Twenty minutes later, I'm back at my desk, brimming with vitality and raring to go.

I've taken this medicine regularly now for about eight years, after developing elevated blood pressure in my mid-40s. I'd heard it could help reduce blood pressure and improve circulation. Sure enough, the high blood pressure vanished long ago.

Amazingly, this drug is freely available to everyone on the planet. It's completely up to you when you take it, and how much. And as research is now revealing, the more of it you take, the healthier you will be."

- Andy Coghlan

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

How Can We Get Students Interested in Math and Science?

High school students may not love math and science.  But, they can see the value in these classes. When parents talk to their children about the importance of math and science, it really does have an impact on the classes they take. And presumably, a student who is well-prepared in math and science in high school will continue that education in college.

- More Here

A Life Well-Lived In The Struggle

In his writings, Alexander rejected the notion of “’race” as a valid biological entity. While he accepted that racism exists as a social construct, and with the life-and-death consequences of the former apartheid regime’s Bantustan policies and Hitler’s delusions about a master race, he criticised the lack of a scientific understanding within the former South African liberation movement’s perceptions about the phenomenon of “race”. Instead, through his work, he experimented with notions of colour-caste, class and identities, and marshalled his thoughts to develop an indigenous theory of knowledge about humanity’s genealogy and evolving consciousness.

What separated Alexander from many other academics and intellectuals is that his pursuit of knowledge was anchored in the existential imperative to act in the “here and now”. He stood on the shoulders of equally agile and committed writers and thinkers such as Ben Kies and Isaac Bangani Tabata, who were leaders in knowledge production outside the academy. His interrogation of contemporary debates and conversations on language and nation-building places him among the leading scholars and committed writers on the future of humanity. His synergy with former SACP stalwart Harold Wolpe’s Race, Class and the Apartheid State (1988) is not accidental.

Neville Alexander was a radical participant in the making of South African history. In his own words, written in 1995 after the democratic elections in 1994: “The nation is being imagined, invented, created before our eyes. Indeed, we are extremely fortunate to have been afforded ringside seats by Clio enabling us to observe in the most concrete manner possible the contest between the nation conceived as a community of culture and the nation as a political community. As organic intellectuals, however, we resemble Brechtian rather than Aristotelian theatre-goers. Like every other would-be mother or sire of the nation, we want to be involved in its conception even if only as midwives to the wondrous fruit of the womb of our struggle. At worst, we are willing to be mere critics, those (usually tired old) men and women who stand around in the labor ward admiring or bewailing the features of the new-born infant.”

- A Tribute to Neville Alexander (born 22 October 1936; died 27 August 2012)

Quote of the Day

"1.2 million years ago the human cranium evolved to maintain a sense of selfhood. There is lust, there is romantic love, there is attachment. But the strongest desire comes from the self's ability to choose another self."

- David Schnarch

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Art Of Creating Awe

Susan Sontag On Love

“Nothing is mysterious, no human relation. Except love.”

- That's from her book As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980

- More Here

Quote of the Day

"It is proposed that happiness be classified as a psychiatric disorder and be included in future editions of the major diagnostic manuals under the new name: major affective disorder, pleasant type. In a review of the relevant literature it is shown that happiness is statistically abnormal, consists of a discrete cluster of symptoms, is associated with a range of cognitive abnormalities, and probably reflects the abnormal functioning of the central nervous system. One possible objection to this proposal remains--that happiness is not negatively valued. However, this objection is dismissed as scientifically irrelevant."

A proposal to classify happiness as a psychiatric disorder

Monday, August 27, 2012

Tom Friedman On Rethink Robotics

This is the company of the future. Forget about “outsourcing.” In today’s hyperconnected world, there is no “in” and no “out.” There’s only “good, better and best,” and if you don’t assemble the best team you can from everywhere, your competitor will.

The Rethink robot will be unveiled in weeks. I was just given a sneak peek — on the condition that I did not mention its “disruptive” price point and some other unique features.

“Just as the PC did not replace workers but empowered them to do many new things,” argues Brooks, the same will happen with the Rethink robot. “Companies will become even more competitive, and we will be able to keep more jobs here. ... The minute you say ‘robots’ people say: ‘It’s going to take away jobs. But that is not true. It doesn’t take away jobs. It will change how you do them,” the way the PC did not get rid of secretaries but changed what they did.

Actually, the robots will eliminate jobs, just as the PC did, but they be will lower-skilled ones. And the robots will also create new jobs or enlarge existing ones, but they will be jobs that require more skills. I watched a Rethink robot being tested at the Nypro plastics factory in Clinton, Mass. A single worker was operating a big molding machine that occasionally spewed out too many widgets, which forced the system to overload. The robot was brought in to handle overflow, while the same single worker still operated the machine. “We want the robot to be the extension of the worker, not the replacement of the worker,” said Michael McGee, Nypro’s director of technology.

- More Here and don't forgot to check out Rethink Robotics

How Biomimicry Is Inspiring Human Innovation

Though biomimicry has inspired human innovations for decades—one of the most often-cited examples is Velcro, which the Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral patented in 1955 after studying how burs stuck to his clothes—better technology and more nuanced research have enabled increasingly complex adaptions. Design software created by German researcher Claus Mattheck—and used in Opel and Mercedes cars—reflects the ways trees and bones distribute strength and loads. A fan created by Pax Scientific borrows from the patterns of swirling kelp, nautilus and whelks to move air more efficiently. A saltwater-irrigated greenhouse in the Qatari desert will use condensation and evaporation tricks gleaned from the nose of a camel. Now, thanks in part to continuing innovations in nanoscale fabrication, manufacturers are bringing an expanding array of products to market.

Biomimicry isn’t itself a product but a process, drawing on natural organisms and processes in order to spark innovation. Organizations and even cities can look to ecosystems for inspiration, says Tim McGee, a biologist and member of Biomimicry 3.8, a Montana-based consultancy. In Lavasa—described as “India’s first planned hill city” by its developers, who hope to eventually build homes for more than 300,000 people there—the guild consulted with landscape architects. Thus the planting strategy included deciduous trees, forming a canopy to catch, and then reflect, through evaporation, nearly a third of the monsoon rain that hits it. That effect acts “like an engine that drives the monsoon inland,” says McGee, which helps prevent drought there. The hydrodynamically efficient shape of banyan tree leaves influenced the design of a better water-dispatching roof shingle, while water divertment systems were inspired by the ways harvester ants direct water away from their nests. The first Lavasa “town” has been completed, with four more projected to follow by 2020.

Everyone’s talking about ways to reduce the human footprint, or to get to “net zero” impact. But nature, says McGee, usually goes one step further: “It’s almost never net zero—the output from that system is usually beneficial to everything around it.” What if we could build our cities the same way? “What if, in New York City, when it rained, the water that went into the East River was cleaner than when it fell?” And what if, when forests caught fire, the flames could be extinguished by means that didn’t depend on toxic substances? “Nature creates flame retardants that are nontoxic,” notes McGee. “Why can’t we?”

- More Here

ML Algorithms Fights Crop Pest

In Taiwan, fruit fly populations are normally monitored using traps that are manually checked every 10 days. Cheng-Long Chuang and colleagues at the National Taiwan University in Taipei wanted to automate the counting process, so they placed infrared beams in the traps. Each trap records when the beam is broken, indicating that an oriental fruit fly has entered, attracted by a chemical designed to lure the insect. The results collected are sent via radio to a local station every 30 minutes, allowing real-time measurements of the population.

Part-funded by the Taiwanese government, the team have so far set up 240 traps on fruit farms around the country. Machine learning algorithms pool the continuous data arriving from each of these traps and predict when the local fruit fly population is about to explode.

To help in this prediction, the traps are also fitted with weather sensors that monitor temperature, humidity, wind speed and rainfall. Fruit fly population surges tend to match changes in weather - when it is humid, the level of insects is expected to rise, for example.

In Taiwan's current system, a red alert is issued when the number of flies caught in a trap surges beyond 1024 in a 10-day period. But the AI system can learn what counts as a normal level of fruit flies in an area and adapt its warnings on the basis of the current weather and time of year. It can also work out where the pest is likely to be breeding.

When a potentially devastating infestation is predicted, it automatically sends a text message to government officials' cellphones, providing the time, location and severity of the potential outbreak. The warning should allow authorities to pre-empt the outbreak by putting down insecticide.

Tested on historical data taken from the network of traps, the AI system was accurate in predicting an outbreak 88 per cent of the time.

- More Here

Larry Smarr - Man Who Intends to Change Medicine

SmartPlanet: You talk about something called the “computational model of the human body.” What exactly is that?

Larry Smarr: Well let’s start by understanding that we get about a factor of a thousand-fold increase in computer power for the same money every decade. This is known as Moore’s Law. As far as we can see this will continue. If you go back to just where we were in 2000, there wasn’t Google, there wasn’t Amazon, web services, the cloud really wasn’t an idea.

And now there are millions of processors in the various clouds that are out there. Project forward ten years and we’ll have the so-called excess scale computer, which is one million teraflops. So one million trillion computations a second. And it will be composed of about a billion processors of say the strength and the fastness that we have today. I don’t think it’s crazy that the cloud, instead of millions will be billions of processors.

SP: OK, that’s an almost unimaginable amount of computational power and speed. But what about the biological body connection?

LS: So last month, in July, the first scientific paper came out on a complete computational model of a single cell including all the metabolism and DNA replication. This is a quest that people have now been on for twenty years.

But it’s finally possible. If the fastest computer today has several hundred thousand processors and in ten years that computer will have a billion, I think we’re going to have pretty accurate models of entire human bodies.

SP: What will that mean for us?

LS: Well at the same time anyone who goes to the doctor will be able to get a patient’s full genome done for a few hundred dollars, about the same cost as a medical exam. And we’ll have that across hundreds of millions of people. It’s hard to understand how data rich the world we will be in ten years from now is compared to how data poor it was ten years ago.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

“We found decisive support for an Anatolian origin over a steppe origin. Both the timing and the root of the tree of Indo-European languages fit with an agricultural expansion from Anatolia beginning 8,000 to 9,500 years ago.”

Mapping the Origins and Expansion of the Indo-European Language Family

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Robot Learns ‘Self-Awareness’

“Only humans can be self-aware.”

Another myth bites the dust. Yale roboticists have programmed Nico, a robot, to be able to recognize itself in a mirror.

Why is this important? Because robots will need to learn about themselves and how they affect the world around them — especially people.

Using knowledge that it has learned about itself, Nico is able to use a mirror as an instrument for spatial reasoning, allowing it to accurately determine where objects are located in space based on their reflections, rather than naively believing them to exist behind the mirror.

Nico’s programmer, roboticist Justin Hart, a member of the Social Robotics Lab, focuses his thesis research primarily on “robots autonomously learning about their bodies and senses,” but he also explores human-robot interaction, “including projects on social presence, attributions of intentionality, and people’s perception of robots.”

- More Here

Steve Jobs On Life & Failure

"Once you discover one simple fact and that is everything around you that you call life was made you by people that were no smarter than you. The minute you understand that you can poke life and something will pop out of the other-side, you can change it, you can mould it and may be the most important thing is to shake of the erroneous notion that life is there and you just gonna live in it versus embrace it, change it, improve it, make your mark upon it. Once you learn that you will never be the same again.

Most people never ask. Thats what separates people who do things and people who dream about that. You got to act and you got to be willing to fail. You to be willing to crash and burn. If you are afraid of failing you wouldn't get very far."

Neil Armstrong Last Interview

"Nasa has been one of the most successful public investments in motivating students to do well and achieve all they can achieve. It's sad that we are turning the programme in a direction where it will reduce the amount of motivation and stimulation it provides to young people.

I'm substantially concerned about the policy directions of the space agency. We have a situation in the US where the White House and Congress are at odds over what the future direction should be. They're sort of playing a game and Nasa is the shuttlecock that they're hitting back and forth."

- More Here. Check out his brilliant biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R.Hansen

Quote of the Day

"The cost of failure is very high. But what if you choose the wrong god to believe in? What if you get up there and it’s not Jehovah but Baal? [laughs] And even if you pick the right god, why should God be so obsessive about you believing in him? Plus, any god worth its salt is going to realize you’re feigning. The odds are extremely low, but nevertheless it’s worth it because the reward is extremely high. But you may also be wasting your life. You go to church every Sunday, you do penance, you wear sackcloth and ashes. You have a horrible life, and then you die and that’s it."

- Richard Dawkins argues against Pascal's claim - it’s a smarter bet to believe in God, because if you’re wrong...

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Gaps in the Perception of GM Food Safety

  • Food fingerprinting investigations show the precise composition of a crop is readily affected by the position of the plant in the field in which it is being grown, climatic differences between farms, variation in soil chemistry and differences in crop composition generated by conventional breeding. These factors all produce more unexpected alteration of food composition than do the methods used to make GM food crops.
  • Another example of natural genetic engineering was discovered in an Illinois soybean field in 1987, where a (non-GM) colour-mutated soybean flower appeared spontaneously in a field of soybeans.
  • All the key features of laboratory genetic manipulation of crops — random DNA insertion in chromosomes, foreign DNA, altered expression of genes, DNA rearrangements — are exhibited by natural genetic mutations that occur in plants.
  • Our exposure to unexpected genetic events occurring in genetically-engineered food is lower than our exposure to the unintended genetic changes served up by conventional foods we’ve eaten for years. And underpinning this more recent scientific finding is the fact that there’s solid assurance of GM food safety from the intense scientific scrutiny and government oversight that GM food has received at all stages of its development over the last 30 years and more. Food from GM crops is at least as safe as traditional foods.
- More Here

Wisdom Of The Week

Rachel Carson had a lot to say about human rights. In Silent Spring:

If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.

In congressional testimony (June 1963):

[I assert] the right of the citizen to be secure in his own home against the intrusions of poisons applied by other persons. I speak not as a lawyer but as a biologist and as a human being, but I strongly feel that this is or should be one of the basic human rights.

From her final speech (San Francisco, October 1963):

Underlying all of these problems of introducing contamination into our world is the question of moral responsibility. . . . [T]he threat is infinitely greater to the generations unborn; to those who have no voice in the decisions of today, and that fact alone makes our responsibility a heavy one.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

"American politics is ludicrously funny!! There are many illusions incorporated in the democratic philosophy. They tend to be very pleasing and satisfying but they are misleading and fantasies. One of them was the democratic idea was even possible that there is such a thing as participatory democracy. I think one of the illusions is that we have that is this confident view that by voting we are participating in government. I maintain that is a delusion and it is a ritualistic  routine. The right to vote, I think is indispensable to our contentment but in application it is absolutely useless."

- Joseph Heller

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Art of Not Knowing

In education the starting point is what you don’t know.

Before you can begin your research or frame your experiments you’d better make sure that you are asking the right questions about what you don’t know. Trying to understand the universe through science can only come from a place of not knowing.

Innovation and creativity can only exist with the wonder of not knowing. I wonder what will happen if I mix this thing here with this thing over here. I don’t know, but would love to find out. Curiosity is born from not knowing.

ot knowing is a key ingredient in change and growth.

When we loosen our grip on what we expect, we are more open to the feedback we get. Once we let go of being so damn certain, we open up to new possibilities. Being open to new possibilities means that we become more adaptable, and that means that we are more likely to cope with unpredictable change and uncertainty.

In this day and age this sort of resilience is crucial to our success.

Knowing what to do matters, but more important is knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.

Can you be comfortable in that space? Because the truth is, we never know.

- More Here

Five Commands for Life

  • Don't ignore your dreams
  • Don't work too much
  • Say what you think 
  • Cultivate friendships
  • Be happy

- Paul Graham distills Bronnie Ware's list of biggest Regrets of the Dying

Quote of the Day

“When you wish to instruct, be brief; that men’s minds take in quickly what you say, learn its lesson, and retain it faithfully. Every word that is unnecessary only pours over the side of a brimming mind.”

- Cicero

Thursday, August 23, 2012

IBM Watson Turns Medic

The technology is particularly useful in oncology because doctors struggle to keep up with the explosion of genomic and molecular data generated about each cancer type. This means it can take years for findings to translate into medical practice. By contrast, Watson can absorb new results and relay them to doctors quickly, together with an estimate of their potential usefulness. "Watson really has great potential," says Audeh. "Cancer needs it most because it's becoming so complicated so quickly."

The IBM system could also approve treatment requests more quickly. At WellPoint, one of the largest insurers in the US, nurses use guidelines and patient history to determine if a request is in line with company policy. Nurses are now training Watson by feeding it test requests and observing the answers. Progress is good and the system could be deployed next year, says WellPoint's Cindy Wakefield. "Now it can take up to a couple of days," she says. "We hope Watson can return the accurate recommendation in a matter of minutes."

- More Here

Success is a Catalyst for Failure

Why don't successful people become really successful? Greg McKeown explains in The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.

Why don't successful people and organizations automatically become very successful? One important explanation is due to what I call "the clarity paradox," which can be summed up in four predictable phases:

  • Phase 1: When we really have clarity of purpose, it leads to success.
  • Phase 2: When we have success, it leads to more options and opportunities.
  • Phase 3: When we have increased options and opportunities, it leads to diffused efforts.
  • Phase 4: Diffused efforts undermine the very clarity that led to our success in the first place.
- More Here

The Irony Of A Black President

The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear, by being "clean" (as Joe Biden once labeled him)--and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches. This irony is rooted in the greater ironies of the country he leads. For most of American history, our political system was premised on two conflicting facts--one, an oft-stated love of democracy; the other, an undemocratic white supremacy inscribed at every level of government. In warring against that paradox, African Americans have historically been restricted to the realm of protest and agitation. But when President Barack Obama pledged to "get to the bottom of exactly what happened," he was not protesting or agitating. He was not appealing to federal power--he was employing it. The power was black--and, in certain quarters, was received as such.

No amount of rhetorical moderation could change this. It did not matter that the president addressed himself to "every parent in America." His insistence that "everybody [pull] together" was irrelevant. It meant nothing that he declined to cast aspersions on the investigating authorities, or to speculate on events. Even the fact that Obama expressed his own connection to Martin in the quietest way imaginable--"If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon"--would not mollify his opposition. It is, after all, one thing to hear "I am Trayvon Martin" from the usual placard-waving rabble-rousers. Hearing it from the commander of the greatest military machine in human history is another.

- Ta-Nehisi Coates

Quote of the Day

"It is perplexing, but amusing to observe people getting extremely excited about things you don’t care about; it is sinister to watch them ignore things you believe are fundamental."

- Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Robotic Hand To Detect Everything From Abnormal Breast Lumps To Enlarged Lymph Nodes

"The uses for the glove are virtually endless: home breast cancer screenings that can detect the exact size and location of a lump so that patients can more accurately gauge whether they need to see a doctor; glove-guided exams that can quickly detect everything from an enlarged liver to enlarged lymph nodes; easy assessment of abdominal pain and heart abnormalities (using the ultrasound sensors); and more."

- More Here

Celebrate the Farmer

Not everyone can afford fresh fruits and vegetables, especially from farm stands! And, sadly, it’s true. But this is precisely why we need to support a herd of actions that will make it possible for more people to have access to real food:
  • We need to reduce unemployment and increase the minimum wage (including that for farm and restaurant workers). This (obviously) goes beyond the realm of food, but it’s key to improving the quality of life for many if not most Americans. (Here’s a strong argument for that.)
  • We need to not cut but raise the amount of support we give to recipients of food stamps. A good example is New York City’s Health Bucks program, where food stamps are worth more at farmers’ markets (which don’t, as a rule, sell sugar-sweetened beverages!).
  • We need not only to attack the nonsensical and wasteful system that pays for corn and soybeans to be grown to create junk food and ethanol, but to support local and national legislation that encourages the birth of new small-and-medium farms. We need to encourage both new and established farms to grow a variety of fruits and vegetables, to raise animals in sensible ways and, using a combination of modern and time-tested techniques, treat those animals well and use their products sensibly.

    - Mark Bittman

Quote of the Day

"Any system whose functional connectivity and architecture yield a phi value greater than zero has at least a trifle of experience. This would certainly include the brains of bees. Just because bees are small and fuzzy does not mean that they cannot have subjective states. So, the next time a bee hovers above your breakfast, attracted by the golden nectar on your toast, gently shoo her away. She might be a fellow sentient being, experiencing her brief interlude in the light."

Consciousness Is Everywhere

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Plagiarism Now in Couresa...

Daphne Koller, a co-founder of Coursera and a professor at Stanford University, said she planned to look into how widespread reports of plagiarism are. "I don't have a sense of whether it's more frequent than in regular classroom environments," she said on Wednesday. She noted that Coursera makes students agree to uphold an honor code when they sign up for courses, but that, in the future, assignments will include reminders that all answers must be the students' original work.

"That would clarify to students what is and isn't appropriate behavior," she said. "That will reduce the incidents considerably, I hope."

She said Coursera officials would also consider adding a software system that could automatically detect suspected plagiarism, but no decision has been made on the issue. "It depends on how common this is," she said.

- More Here

Is This the First Photosynthetic Animal?

 - More Here

Quote of the Day

"I don't think winners beat the competition because they work harder. And it's not even clear that they win because they have more creativity. The secret, I think, is in understanding what matters.

It's not obvious, and it changes. It changes by culture, by buyer, by product and even by the day of the week. But those that manage to capture the imagination, make sales and grow are doing it by perfecting the things that matter and ignoring the rest.

Both parts are difficult, particularly when you are surrounded by people who insist on fretting about and working on the stuff that makes no difference at all."

- Seth Godin

Monday, August 20, 2012

Wisdom Of Adam Smith

"Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befal himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.

To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them? Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it. But what makes this difference? When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble? When we are always so much more deeply affected by whatever concerns ourselves, than by whatever concerns other men; what is it which prompts the generous, upon all occasions, and the mean upon many, to sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others?

It is not the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love. It is a stronger power, a more forcible motive, which exerts itself upon such occasions. It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct. It is he who, whenever we are about to act so as to affect the happiness of others, calls to us, with a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of our passions, that we are but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it; and that when we prefer ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the proper objects of resentment, abhorrence, and execration. It is from him only that we learn the real littleness of ourselves, and of whatever relates to ourselves, and the natural misrepresentations of self-love can be corrected only by the eye of this impartial spectator. It is he who shows us the propriety of generosity and the deformity of injustice; the propriety of resigning the greatest interests of our own, for the yet greater interests of others, and the deformity of doing the smallest injury to another, in order to obtain the greatest benefit to ourselves. It is not the love of our neighbour, it is not the love of mankind, which upon many occasions prompts us to the practice of those divine virtues. It is a stronger love, a more powerful affection, which generally takes place upon such occasions; the love of what is honourable and noble, of the grandeur, and dignity, and superiority of our own characters."

- Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments

Exercise is a Keystone Habit

"Typically, people who exercise, start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. Exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change."

-  The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

Quote of the Day

“According to an article in a 1931 railway trade magazine, three days were required to unload a boxcar containing 13,000 cases of unpalletized canned goods. When the same amount of goods was loaded into the boxcar on pallets or skids, the identical task took only four hours.”

“Without a pallet, most of what you and I eat or wear or sit on or whatnot would not have gotten to us as easily or inexpensively as it got to us.” 

The Single Most Important Object in the Global Economy

Sunday, August 19, 2012

New Wave of Robotics - Skilled Work, Without the Worker

This is the future. A new wave of robots, far more adept than those now commonly used by automakers and other heavy manufacturers, are replacing workers around the world in both manufacturing and distribution. Factories like the one here in the Netherlands are a striking counterpoint to those used by Apple and other consumer electronics giants, which employ hundreds of thousands of low-skilled workers.

“With these machines, we can make any consumer device in the world,” said Binne Visser, an electrical engineer who manages the Philips assembly line in Drachten.

Many industry executives and technology experts say Philips’s approach is gaining ground on Apple’s. Even as Foxconn, Apple’s iPhone manufacturer, continues to build new plants and hire thousands of additional workers to make smartphones, it plans to install more than a million robots within a few years to supplement its work force in China.

Foxconn has not disclosed how many workers will be displaced or when. But its chairman, Terry Gou, has publicly endorsed a growing use of robots. Speaking of his more than one million employees worldwide, he said in January, according to the official Xinhua news agency: “As human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache.”

Robot manufacturers in the United States say that in many applications, robots are already more cost-effective than humans.

At an automation trade show last year in Chicago, Ron Potter, the director of robotics technology at an Atlanta consulting firm called Factory Automation Systems, offered attendees a spreadsheet to calculate how quickly robots would pay for themselves.

In one example, a robotic manufacturing system initially cost $250,000 and replaced two machine operators, each earning $50,000 a year. Over the 15-year life of the system, the machines yielded $3.5 million in labor and productivity savings.

- More Here

Inside Tesla 06.05.12 - Body Center from Tesla Motors on Vimeo.

Pieces of Light - The New Science of Memory

Review of Charles Fernyhough's new book Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory:

When it comes to the big questions about the nature of autobiographical memory, Charles Fernyhough is as informed as he is enchanted. But Pieces of Light does not dwell on the molecular mechanics of memory, or take the reader on a didactic trudge through the enchanted loom of connections between cells in a brain.

Instead, the Durham University psychologist tells stories to explore the deepest nature of memory, and does it beautifully. His exploration of how our minds are shaped by the past ranges from Andy Warhol’s “scent museum” – the artist switched colognes on a routine basis and kept the part-used bottles, so that one whiff could transport him back to a given time – to flashbulb memories that can be as wrong as they are vivid.

His aim is to shatter the widespread idea of human memory as being like the film of an old-fashioned camera, the chip in a computer, or mental DVDs stashed in the library of the mind. Instead, he argues for memory as a storyteller, as a habit and a reconstruction, citing research from the Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter and others which suggests elements of our experiences are seasoned with beliefs and even knowledge at the time of recalling and reconstructing the experience.

Remembering is an act of narration as much as it is the product of a neurological process and it most likely evolved not to keep a faithful record of the past but to help predict what will happen next: that is why amnesiacs can’t imagine the future.

In his hybrid of autobiography, journalism and pop psychology, Fernyhough lets the stories speak for themselves to highlight memory’s personal, subjective and fragile qualities. Fernyhough takes us on a captivating journey into the mind. And he does so with great style.

Quote of the Day

"Patience wears my grandmother's filigree earrings. She bakes marvelous dark bread. She has beautiful hands. She carries great snacks of peace  and purses filled with small treasures. You don't notice her right away in a crowd. But suddenly you see her all at once, and then she is so beautiful you wonder why you never saw her before."

- The Book of Qualities by J. Ruth Gendler

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Wisdom Of The Week

  • There is a sizable literature on the cognitive benefits of bilingualism.  I get nervous when I see the topic discussed without reference to the main claimed benefits.
  • I believe that good fluency in a second or third language significantly expands one’s ability to see and understand and also articulate other points of view.  And most of the very great thinkers of the past were fluent or semi-fluent in multiple languages.  By teaching other languages at an early age, we can make our most productive thinkers deeper and more productive.
  • Ideally foreign languages can be taught to individuals when they are young, well before high school, thus very much lowering the opportunity cost of such instruction. Just toss out some of the other material, making sure to keep mathematics and English literacy. Most of Western Europe does this quite well, and I hardly think of those children as miserable. I don’t see why this has to cost anything at all.
  • I am reasonably sympathetic to the “we’re so uncommitted to this notion we’ll never see it through so let’s not bother trying” response to my attitude. (In particular it is harder for Americans to get within-culture reinforcement for language learning in the way that Europeans so often do, either from American popular culture or from crossing a nearby border.)  Yet that’s a far cry from believing it would actually be a mistake to invest resources in that direction, if indeed we would see it through.

    - Tyler Cowen on the benefits of learning second language.

Quote of the Day

"The more complex the decisions and behavior, the more likely such predictions will be based on information about the very neural processes that are the basis of conscious deliberation and decision-making."

- Eddy Nahmias on Free Will

Friday, August 17, 2012

India’s Living Bridges

"The root bridges, some of which are over a hundred feet long, take ten to fifteen years to become fully functional, but they’re extraordinarily strong – strong enough that some of them can support the weight of fifty or more people at a time. In fact, because they are alive and still growing, the bridges actually gain strength over time – and some of the ancient root bridges used daily by the people of the villages around Cherrapunji may be well over 500 years old."

- More Here

Modern Meadow - Printing Hamburgers

There has been lot of good news on the IVF Meat front and now, it's "collaborating" with 3d printing !!

As its short-term goal, Modern Meadow will use bio-ink – a substance consisting of living cells – to print a mix of layers that, combined, create “a sliver of meat around two centimetres by one centimetre, and less than half a millimetre thick, which is edible.” The company acknowledges that there will be hurdles to overcome between the lab and the grocery store, and predicts that their first customers will probably include ethical vegetarians and “culinary early-adopter consumers,” which may be code for “avant-garde Manhattan/Brooklyn restaurateurs.” Eventually, it hopes to reach out to populations who avoid meat for religious reasons, as well as to those for whom safe meat production is limited.

Quote of the Day

Yes and to me, that's a perfect illustration of why experiments are relevant in the first place! More often than not, the only reason we need experiments is that we're not smart enough. After the experiment has been done, if we've learned anything worth knowing at all, then hopefully we've learned why the experiment wasn't necessary to begin with - why it wouldn't have made sense for the world to be any other way. But we're too dumb to figure it out ourselves!

- Scott Aaronson

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Quote of the Day

This is what Denny says. He says racing is doing. It is being part of a moment and being aware of nothing else but that moment. Reflection must come at a later time. The great champion Julian SabellaRosa has said, "When I am racing, my mind and my body are working so quickly and so well together, I must be sure not to think, or else I will definitely make a mistake."

- The Art of Racing in the Rain

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

What I've Been Reading

How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton M Christensen. I have never read a book drawing such brilliant analogies between business and life - only Clayton is capable of pulling it off with subtlety. There is plenty to learn from this book, if one can get around the peppered religiosity.
  • Instead of teaching what to think, teach how to think.
  • People often think that the best way to predict the future is by collecting as much data as possible before making a decision. But this is like driving a car looking only at the rear view mirror— because data is only available about the past.
  • One of the best ways to probe whether you can trust the advice that a theory is offering you is to look for anomalies— something that the theory cannot explain. Remember the story about birds, feathers, and flight? The early aviators might have seen some warning signs in their rudimentary analysis of flight had they examined what their beliefs or theories could not explain. Ostriches have wings and feathers but can’t fly. Bats have wings but no feathers, and they are great fliers. And flying squirrels have neither wings nor feathers … and they get by.
  • True motivation is getting people to do something because they want to do it. This type of motivation continues, in good times and in bad.
  • The opposite of job dissatisfaction isn’t job satisfaction, but rather an absence of job dissatisfaction. They’re not the same thing at all.
  • Strategy almost always emerges from a combination of deliberate and unanticipated opportunities. What’s important is to get out there and try stuff until you learn where your talents, interests, and priorities begin to pay off. When you find out what really works for you, then it’s time to flip from an emergent strategy to a deliberate one.
  • The danger for high-achieving people is that they’ll unconsciously allocate their resources to activities that yield the most immediate, tangible accomplishments. They prioritized things that gave them immediate returns— such as a promotion, a raise, or a bonus— rather than the things that require long-term work, the things that you won’t see a return on for decades, like raising good children.
  • If the decisions you make about where you invest your blood, sweat, and tears are not consistent with the person you aspire to be, you’ll never become that person.
  • There is much more to life than your career. The person you are at work and the amount of time you spend there will impact the person you are outside of work with your family and close friends. In my experience, high-achievers focus a great deal on becoming the person they want to be at work— and far too little on the person they want to be at home.
  • Work can bring you a sense of fulfillment— but it pales in comparison to the enduring happiness you can find in the intimate relationships that you cultivate with your family and close friends.
  • As such, there is no one-size-fits-all approach that anyone can offer you. The hot water that softens a carrot will harden an egg. As a parent, you will try many things with your child that simply won’t work. When this happens, it can be very easy to view it as a failure. Don’t. If anything, it’s the opposite.
  • Many products fail because companies develop them from the wrong perspective. Companies focus too much on what they want to sell their customers, rather than what those customers really need. What’s missing is empathy: a deep understanding of what problems customers are trying to solve. The same is true in our relationships: we go into them thinking about what we want rather than what is important to the other person. Changing your perspective is a powerful way to deepen your relationships.
  • Many parents are making the same mistake, flooding their children with resources— knowledge, skills, and experiences. And just as with Dell, each of the decisions to do so seems to make sense. We want our kids to get ahead, and believe that the opportunities and experiences we have provided for them will help them do exactly that. But the nature of these activities— experiences in which they’re not deeply engaged and that don’t really challenge them to do hard things— denies our children the opportunity to develop the processes they’ll need to succeed in the future.
  • Children will learn when they are ready to learn, not when we’re ready to teach them. First, when children are ready to learn, we need to be there. And second, we need to be found displaying through our actions, the priorities and values that we want our children to learn.
  • Creating experiences for your children doesn’t guarantee that they’ll learn what they need to learn. If that doesn’t happen, you have to figure out why that experience didn’t achieve it. You might have to iterate through different ideas until you get it right. The important thing for a parent is, as always, to never give up; never stop trying to help your children get the right experiences to prepare them for life.
  • Culture is a way of working together toward common goals that have been followed so frequently and so successfully that people don’t even think about trying to do things another way. If a culture has formed, people will autonomously do what they need to do to be successful.
  • I can’t anticipate all the circumstances and moral dilemmas you will find yourself in throughout your life. Yours will be different from everyone else’s. What I offer here is a theory called “full versus marginal thinking” that will help you answer our final question: how can I be sure I live a life of integrity?
  • The type of person you want to become— what the purpose of your life is— is too important to leave to chance.
  • The only way to avoid the consequences of uncomfortable moral concessions in your life is to never start making them in the first place. When the first step down that path presents itself, turn around and walk the other way.

Quote of the Day

"The only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it."

- Steve Jobs

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Algorithm That Runs The World

Its full name is the simplex algorithm, and it emerged in the late 1940s from the work of the US mathematician George Dantzig, who had spent the second world war investigating ways to increase the logistical efficiency of the US air force. Dantzig was a pioneer in the field of what he called linear programming, which uses the mathematics of multidimensional polytopes to solve optimisation problems. One of the first insights he arrived at was that the optimum value of the "target function" - the thing we want to maximise or minimise, be that profit, travelling time or whatever - is guaranteed to lie at one of the corners of the polytope. This instantly makes things much more tractable: there are infinitely many points within any polytope, but only ever a finite number of corners.

If we have just a few dimensions and constraints to play with, this fact is all we need. We can feel our way along the edges of the polytope, testing the value of the target function at every corner until we find its sweet spot. But things rapidly escalate. Even just a 10-dimensional problem with 50 constraints - perhaps trying to assign a schedule of work to 10 people with different expertise and time constraints - may already land us with several billion corners to try out.

The simplex algorithm finds a quicker way through. Rather than randomly wandering along a polytope's edges, it implements a "pivot rule" at each corner. Subtly different variations of this pivot rule exist in different implementations of the algorithm, but often it involves picking the edge along which the target function descends most steeply, thus ensuring each step takes us nearer the optimal value. When a corner is found where no further descent is possible, we know we have arrived at the optimal point.

- More Here

Lessons from a 40 Year Old - Matt Haughey

"The world is full of ideas that can be executed with 10 or 20 hours per week, let alone 40. The number of projects that are truly impossible unless you put in 80 or 120 hours per week are vanishing small by comparison. 

This is of course nothing new. We've been playing this bongo drum for years. But every time I see people crumble and quit from the crunch-mode pressure cooker, I think what a shame, it didn't have to be like that."

Webstock '12: Matt Haughey - Lessons from a 40 year old from Webstock on Vimeo.

Quote of the Day

The author admits that he now tends to defend Jobs against personal attacks, since his book has provided much of the ammunition. Isaacson sees Jobs as being hardly more blameworthy, even in his worst moments, than other powerful people. Readers he knows personally claim to be shocked that Jobs would brazenly park in handicap spaces, but Isaacson says some of them are bankers who created the derivatives that screwed clients out of their life savings and helped lead to worldwide recession. When other readers express their contempt for the way Jobs treated his family, Isaacson asks them, “Then how come you’ve been married three times and this particular daughter doesn’t fucking speak to you?” Indeed, Isaacson rejects the premise that Jobs failed with his family. He points out that Jobs ended up with a strong marriage and four loving children, all of whom were at his side during his illness. A wooden table filled much of Jobs’ kitchen, and for the last two decades of his life he came home just about every night and sat down for dinner. “Jobs could have been a better father,” Isaacson concedes. “But I look at that family, and it’s perfectly wonderful. It couldn’t be a better family.”

- Water Isaacson on Steve Jobs

Monday, August 13, 2012

What I've Been Reading

Human Capitalism: How Economic Growth Has Made Us Smarter--and More Unequal by Brink Lindsey. Loved the diagnostic theme of the book but disappointed with the remedy.

At the core of this book, then, is a claim about the relationship between economic development and cognitive development. Here’s the basic dynamic: economic growth breeds complexity, complexity imposes increasingly heavy demands on our mental capabilities, and people respond by making progressively greater investments in human capital. As a result, capitalism has morphed into “human capitalism”— a social system in which status and achievement hinge largely on possessing the right knowledge and skills.

Over the past generation, though, the structure of American society under human capitalism has grown increasingly lopsided. And that is because the relationship between economic development and cognitive development has broken down for large sections of the population. For those in the upper third or so of the socioeconomic scale, the virtuous circle continues: increasing complexity has led to greater investments in human capital and widening opportunities for putting those investments to productive use. The rest of America, though, is being left behind: human capital levels are stagnating, and so are economic prospects.

Lindsey starts out sounding like Charles Murray in Coming Apart but eventually refutes him:

He sees the cultural changes that have occurred since the 1960s as, quite simply, a decline in virtue— most directly on the part of the working class, but indirectly as well among members of the elite who, while thriving on their own, have abdicated moral leadership by failing to “preach what they practice.” 71 I’m afraid this approach doesn’t get us anywhere. The absolutist conceptions of morality that once kept the working class (and everybody else, too) on the straight and narrow were a cultural adaptation to material scarcity. As Inglehart has documented exhaustively, when scarcity abates, these absolutist conceptions lose their hold on people’s hearts and minds — not just in the United States but around the world. We may wish it were otherwise, but wishing won’t change things. There is simply no prospect for a return to the more authoritarian morality of yesteryear.

Getting ride of state license requirements for hair dressers will improve innovation is not very convincing case to expedite innovation although it might win many libertarian hearts:

In 1970, only about 10 percent of Americans worked in jobs subject to occupational licensing; today that figure stands at around 30 percent. Everybody is familiar with licensing requirements for doctors and lawyers. But similar requirements now apply in various states to librarians, upholsterers, massage therapists, cabinet makers, beekeepers, and fortune tellers. As of the early 1990s the Council of Governments estimated that more than eight hundred occupations were subject to licensing requirements in at least one state— a figure that has assuredly increased in the past two decades.

I still find Tyler Cowen's book The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will(Eventually) Feel Better,  the best one so far in this genre.

Quote of the Day

"If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience."

- G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Cargo Cult Science - Richard Feynman

In the wake of the ongoing plagiarism epidemic (two of my favorite writers Zakaria & Lehrer), Richard Feynman's 1974 Caltech commencement address is the best advice one could heed.

"But then I began to think, what else is there that we believe? (And I thought then about the witch doctors, and how easy it would have been to cheek on them by noticing that nothing really worked.) So I found things that even more people believe, such as that we have some knowledge of how to educate. There are big schools of reading methods and mathematics methods, and so forth, but if you notice, you'll see the reading scores keep going down--or hardly going up in spite of the fact that we continually use these same people to improve the methods. There's a witch doctor remedy that doesn't work. It ought to be looked into; how do they know that their method should work? Another example is how to treat criminals. We obviously have made no progress--lots of theory, but no progress-- in decreasing the amount of crime by the method that we use to handle criminals.

Yet these things are said to be scientific. We study them. And I think ordinary people with commonsense ideas are intimidated by this pseudoscience. A teacher who has some good idea of how to teach her children to read is forced by the school system to do it  some other way--or is even fooled by the school system into thinking that her method is not necessarily a good one. Or a parent of bad boys, after disciplining them in one way or another, feels guilty for the rest of her life because she didn't do "the right thing," according to the experts.

So we really ought to look into theories that don't work, and science that isn't science.

I think the educational and psychological studies I mentioned are examples of what I would like to call cargo cult science. In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas--he's the controller--and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land."

Wisdom for life:

"The idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another."

"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself--and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you've not fooled yourself, it's easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.

I would like to add something that's not essential to the science, but something I kind of believe, which is that you should not fool the layman when you're talking as a scientist. I am not trying to tell you what to do about cheating on your wife, or fooling your girlfriend, or something like that, when you're not trying to be a scientist, but just trying to be an ordinary human being. We'll leave those problems up to you and your rabbi. I'm talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you are maybe wrong, that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen."

Quote of the Day

"Media reporters have pointed out that paragraphs in my Time column on gun control, which was also a topic of conversation on this blog, bear close similarities to paragraphs in Jill Lepore's essay in the April 23rd issue of The New Yorker. They are right. I made a terrible mistake. It is a serious lapse and one that is entirely my fault. I apologize unreservedly to her, to my editors at Time and CNN, and to my readers and viewers everywhere."

- Fareed Zakaria

Saturday, August 11, 2012

What I've Been Reading

Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple's Success by Ken Segall.This book is an absolute for Steven's fans - it would be ridiculous to classify this book as a business book.  

I was still surprised one day to get an email from the Apple lawyers concerning a newspaper ad that was going to run in just three days. The agency’s lawyers had already approved it. Steve Jobs had already approved it. Now, at the eleventh hour, Apple’s lawyers were saying that they had some problems with it.

The ad in question, coming before Apple made the transition to Intel processors, made the claim that the new Power Macintosh computers actually outperformed the fastest Intel-powered PCs, and offered some benchmark testing to prove it. The lawyers took issue with four points in the copy, fearing that we might face a legal challenge from Intel.

Doing my duty, I sent a note to Steve advising him that there was a wrench in the works— his own legal team. I succinctly described the four problem areas and asked for guidance. Fortunately, Steve wasn’t going to allow Complexity to do its dirty work. Just minutes after I hit the “send” button, his reply landed in my in-box. It wasn’t the most verbose email I’d ever received. But the first sentence so eloquently put things into perspective: "
Fuck the lawyers."

In case you were wondering what consequences resulted from Steve’s decision to spurn his lawyers’ advice and run that anti-Intel ad unchanged, there were none. The ad ran as scheduled, Apple made its point, Intel got a bit steamed, and nobody went to jail. Steve was right again.

Wisdom of simplicity:

"When you first start off trying to solve a problem, the first solutions you come up with are very complex, and most people stop there. But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can oftentimes arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions."
 - Steve Jobs

Wisdom Of The Week

Spending time with Clay leads to lots of interesting insights, but for me, there was one that stood out among all the others.

You’ve probably heard it said that someone can’t be taught until they’re ready to learn. I’ve heard it said that way too. It makes sense, and my experience tells me it’s mostly true. Why though? Why can’t someone be taught until they’re ready to learn?

Clay explained it in a way that I’ve never heard before and I’ll never forget again. Paraphrased slightly, he said:
“Questions are places in your mind where answers fit. If you haven’t asked the question, the answer has nowhere to go. It hits your mind and bounces right off. You have to ask the question – you have to want to know – in order to open up the space for the answer to fit.”

- Why can’t someone be taught until they’re ready to learn? and check out Clay Christense's new book How Will You Measure Your Life

Quote of the Day

"It is a great compliment for an honest person to be mistaken for a crook by a crook"

- Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Friday, August 10, 2012

On Over-Parenting

"Hanging back and allowing children to make mistakes is one of the greatest challenges of parenting. It’s easier when they’re young — tolerating a stumbling toddler is far different from allowing a preteenager to meet her friends at the mall. The potential mistakes carry greater risks, and part of being a parent is minimizing risk for our children.

What kinds of risks should we tolerate? If there’s a predator loose in the neighborhood, your daughter doesn’t get to go to the mall. But under normal circumstances an 11-year-old girl is quite capable of taking care of herself for a few hours in the company of her friends. She may forget a package, overpay for an item or forget that she was supposed to call home at noon. Mastery of the world is an expanding geography for our kids, for toddlers, it’s the backyard; for preteens, the neighborhood, for teens the wider world. But it is in the small daily risks — the taller slide, the bike ride around the block, the invitation extended to a new classmate — that growth takes place. In this gray area of just beyond the comfortable is where resilience is born.

So if children are able to live with mistakes and even failing, why does it drive us crazy? So many parents have said to me, “I can’t stand to see my child unhappy.” If you can’t stand to see your child unhappy, you are in the wrong business. The small challenges that start in infancy (the first whimper that doesn’t bring you running) present the opportunity for “successful failures,” that is, failures your child can live with and grow from. To rush in too quickly, to shield them, to deprive them of those challenges is to deprive them of the tools they will need to handle the inevitable, difficult, challenging and sometimes devastating demands of life."

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