Thursday, January 31, 2013

Thrun, Koller & Theil on On-line Education

- via MR

Quote of the Day

If we’re to avoid the most disastrous of foreseeable futures, we must use every means at our disposal to lower stress and boost the abundance and variety of life in the sea. It could just buy nature enough time for us to stabilize our own population, transition to energy sources other than fossil fuels, and to find ways of living within the limits of a finite planet. 

There are many ecological services that we cannot artificially re-create or which would simply be too expensive or impractical to engineer.

The Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea by Callum Roberts

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

How To Design A Presentation Like Apple

1. “The quality has to be carried all the way through. … High quality design is all-encompassing.” A good presentation has a clear message, a strong opening, compelling content, an appropriate balance between logic and emotion, good supporting material and a strong conclusion. And it all fits together tightly. Remove even one of these elements and you will end up with weaker product.

2. “[You] must truly understand what the product is, how it works and how it will benefit customers or society …” For every presentation that you give, you must be able to answer these two questions: (a) What is my key message? (b) Why should the audience care? The answers must be absolutely clear if you hope to deliver a presentation that is in any way meaningful for your audience.

3. “Good design is produced by people who are motivated by failures and optimistic about change.” Not every presentation goes as planned. Do you learn from such experiences? Do you seek feedback? Do you act on the feedback that you receive? If you present frequently on the same subject, do you regularly update and refine your presentation? Are you always looking for ways in which to improve?

4. “One of Steve Jobs’ most well-known mantras was ‘Focus and Simplicity’. … It’s harder to design something that is simply beautiful than it is to just stuff a product that is full of bells and whistles.” So many presentations fall short of the mark because the presenter tries to cover too many points and crams every slide with too much text. A good presenter is like a sculptor; she works to remove everything that is unnecessary and extraneous to the key message. A good presenter focuses with laser-like intensity on her key message. Everything in the presentation supports the key message in some way. A good presenter keeps things simple. Simple is good; simple is memorable; simple works.

5. “Product design isn’t meant to stick out like a sore thumb, but rather seamlessly integrate with a high quality product that people come to recognize as an extension of themselves.” If a presentation is well planned, well structured and well delivered, people might remember certain parts of it; however, and more importantly, they will remember the key message and why it is important for them. And, one hopes, they will act on it.

- More Here

Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds is one my favorite books in this genre.

Quote of the Day

Do not leave your reputation to chance or gossip; it is your life's artwork, and you must craft it, hone it, and display it with the care of an artist.

- Robert Greene, Art of Seduction

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Single Loop Vs Double Loop Learning

During the 1970s, Chris Argyris, a business theorist at Harvard Business School (and now, at 89, a professor emeritus) began to research what happens to organizations and people, when they find obstacles in their paths.

Professor Argyris called the most common response single loop learning — an insular mental process in which we consider possible external or technical reasons for obstacles.

Less common but vastly more effective is the cognitive approach that Professor Argyris called double-loop learning. In this mode we question every aspect of our approach, including our methodology, biases and deeply held assumptions. This more psychologically nuanced self-examination requires that we honestly challenge our beliefs and summon the courage to act on that information, which may lead to fresh ways of thinking about our lives and our goals.

- Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield, authors of the forthcoming book The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well (via FS

How Behavioral Economics Could Save Both the Fishing Industry and the Oceans

Catch shares are a market-based management tool used in commercial fishing that, coupled with catch limits, have been successful in rebuilding fish populations while improving the efficiency and business of fishing. After decades of failed regulatory regimes, catch shares are working for fish and for fishermen. What's unfolding before our eyes is a global behavioral economics study — one that's delivering major benefits to people around the world.

The Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery, for example, was on the brink of collapse in the early part of the last decade. Fishermen were limited to 52-day seasons that were getting shorter every year. The shortened seasons, an attempt to counter overfishing, hurt fishermen economically and created unsafe "derbies" that often forced them to race into storms like the boats in The Deadliest Catch.

This short window also meant that all of the red snapper were being caught and brought to market at the same time, creating a glut that crashed prices. Many fishermen couldn't even cover the cost of their trip to sea after selling their fish.

A decade ago, the Environmental Defense Fund began working with a group of commercial red snapper fishermen on a new and better way of doing business. Together, we set out to propose a catch share management system for snapper.

Simply put, fishermen would be allocated shares based on their catch history (the average amount of fish in pounds they landed each year) of the scientifically determined amount of fish allowed for catch each year (the catch limit). Fishermen could then fish within their shares, or quota, all year long, giving them the flexibility they needed to run their businesses.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

Tiko has taught me, a sometimes headstrong and often ferociously independent woman, the importance of interdependence, the importance of taking care, and the importance of being cared for. It's a necessary part of being human and being connected to the world around us that we realize and acknowledge our vulnerability and the vulnerability of all creatures, and that we act in accord with that knowledge. It is critical that we allow the empathetic and altruistic part of ourselves to be the guiding force behind the way that we conduct our lives, whether we give to those less fortunate than ourselves, take care of the magnificent creatures that share our world, work tirelessly to preserve native habitat or separate each strand of an unruly mass of hair so gently that we do not wake our loved one as she sleeps.

- Joanna Burger, The Parrot Who Owns Me: The Story of a Relationship

Monday, January 28, 2013

Is This How Memory Works?

Short-term memory is formed and lost far too quickly for it to be explained by any (known) kind of synaptic plasticity. So how does it work? British mathematicians Samuel Johnson and colleagues say they have the answer: Robust Short-Term Memory without Synaptic Learning, They write:

The mechanism, which we call Cluster Reverberation (CR), is very simple. If neurons in a group are more densely connected to each other than to the rest of the network, either because they form a module or because the network is significantly clustered, they will tend to retain the activity of the group: when they are all initially firing, they each continue to receive many action potentials and so go on firing.

But how could a neural clustering system develop in the first place? And how would the brain ensure that the clusters were 'useful' groups, rather than just being a bunch of different neurons doing entirely different things? Here's the clever bit:

If an initially homogeneous (i.e., neither modular nor clustered) area of brain tissue were repeatedly stimulated with different patterns... then synaptic plasticity mechanisms might be expected to alter the network structure in such a way that synapses within each of the imposed modules would all tend to become strengthened.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

Most Americans today are sleep deprived, which may be a contributing factor to declining testosterone levels in men. See, our body makes nearly all the testosterone it needs for the day while we’re sleeping. That increased level of T that we experience at night is one of the reasons we wake up with "Morning Wood." (If you don’t have Morning Wood on a consistent basis, you might have low T).

But if you’re not getting enough quality sleep, your body can’t produce testosterone as efficiently or effectively. In one study, researchers at the University of Chicago found that young men who slept less than five hours a night for one week had lower testosterone levels than when they were fully rested. The drop was typically 10-15%.

- Doubling Your Testosterone

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Liar’s Advantage

"People lie to protect their self-image,” says Robert Feldman, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts who studies lying and deception. “Once they’ve told a lie, they are in it, they live in it, and they justify hurting others to protect the lie because they don’t see any way out.”

People who live a deception at the level of Lance Armstrong have what Feldman calls the “liar’s advantage” because they are telling us what we want to believe.

“We want to believe Lance Armstrong was a great superhero who overcame cancer and went on to win Tour de France after Tour de France,” Feldman says. “We always want to believe in the great comeback story.”

Armstrong, he says, was unusually energetic in trying to silence the opposition and damage his critics — a trait that, in the end, might be viewed as less forgivable than his lying.

“Lying is extraordinarily common and we couldn’t get along without it,” says David Livingstone Smith, a professor of philosophy at the University of New England in Maine, and author of the book “Why We Lie.” ‘’It greases the wheels of society.”

- More Here

Darpa’s Plan To Use fMRI To Recruit Military Dogs

Last year, Emory University neuroscientist Greg Berns and his colleagues trained dogs to sit unrestrained inside an MRI machine, shown hand signals associated with a food reward, and then scanned. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the researchers noticed increased brain activity in the dogs’ ventral caudate, a region of the brain associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine.

In their study, published last April in Public Library of Science One, Berns and his colleagues concluded that the activity was due to a “trained association to a food reward; however, it is also possible that some component of social reward contributes to the response.” Anyone who’s ever held out a piece of chicken to a well-behaved pup already knows that dogs like getting fed when they’re good. And dogs are highly social animals, closely adapted to human behavior given a shared evolutionary history. But the Emory University team was the first to observe this specific brain activity using MRIs.

That seems to have perked Darpa’s interest. (The researchers have even kicked around the idea of using machines to automate puppy training.) The agency believes it may be possible to screen “high-value service dogs … based on their neutral activation to specific handler training cues,” Darpa notes in the solicitation. The idea is that dogs who show greater brain activity when given such cues will be “faster and easier to train” than dogs that show less activity. And instead of merely using approximations of something the dog wants, to make the dog do something else, handlers could fine-tune their techniques to more closely match the chemical responses happening inside the dog’s head.

Neuroimaging may also help spot “brain hyper-social dogs.” These very social dogs, once scanned and located, could be selected for use in rehabilitative therapy for soldiers exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

Just because someone isn't into finding out The Secrets Of The Universe like me doesn't necessarily mean I can't be friends with them.

Buttercup Dew

Saturday, January 26, 2013

100 Years of Markov Chains

The Russian Revolution of 1917 was called the “Ten Days That Shook the World,” the title of a book by foreign correspondent Jack Reed, Class of 1910.
But how about the one day in Russia that shook the world, and still does? That was Jan. 23, 1913, a century ago this week. Mathematician Andrey A. Markov delivered a lecture that day to the Imperial Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg on a computational technique now called the Markov chain.

Little noticed in its day, his idea for modeling probability is fundamental to all of present-day science, statistics, and scientific computing. Any attempt to simulate probable events based on vast amounts of data — the weather, a Google search, the behavior of liquids — relies on Markov’s idea.

His lecture went on to engender a series of concepts, called Markov chains and Markov proposals, that calculate likely outcomes in complex systems. His technique is still evolving and expanding. “This is a growth industry,” said Boston-area science writer Brian Hayes. “You really can’t turn around in the sciences without running into some kind of Markov process.”

Before Markov, said Hayes, the theory of probability involved observing a series of events that were independent of each another. The classic example is flipping a coin, an activity that makes probability easy to calculate.

Markov added the idea of interdependence to probability, the notion that what happens next is linked to what is happening now. That creates what Hayes called a “chain of linked events,” and not just a series of independent acts. The world, Markov posited, is not just a series of random events. It is a complex thing, and mathematics can help reveal its hidden interconnectedness and likely probabilities. “Not everything,” Hayes told an audience of 100, “works the way coin flipping does.”

- More Here

What Is Like To Take a Walk When You're a Dog

Alexandra Horowitz talks about to her new book On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes

When Alexandra Horowitz, author of the New York Times best-seller Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, decided to learn how to observe her everyday surroundings better, she took 11 walks, each one in the company of someone—or something—with a special expertise. 

In On Looking: Eleven Walks With Expert Eyes, Horowitz describes what she learned from a blind woman, a geologist, an artist, a toddler, a dog, and others. 

Wisdom Of The Week

SPIEGEL: Virus-resistant crops is one thing. Virus-resistant humans is something altogether different.

Church: Why? In technology, we generally don't take leaps. It's this very slow crawl. We are not going to be making a virus-resistant human before we make a virus-resistant cow. I don't understand why people should be so deeply hurt by that kind of technology.

SPIEGEL: Apart from religious opposition, biotechnology also generates very real fears. Artificial lifeforms which might turn out to be dangerous killer-bugs. Don't we need special precautions?

Church: We have to be very cautious, I absolutely agree. I almost never vote against caution or regulations. In fact, I requested them for licensing and surveillance of synthetic biology. Yes, I think the risks are high. The risks of doing nothing are also high, if you consider that there are 7 billion people who need food and are polluting the environment.

- George Church talks about his new book Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves

Quote of the Day

My efforts in philosophy have always been intended to provide intellectual and moral support to those who have realistic sensibilities in science and 'cognitivist' sensibilities in ethics.

Philosophy in an Age of Science: Physics, Mathematics and Skepticism by Hilary Putnam

Friday, January 25, 2013

Dolphins Form Life Raft To Help Dying Friend

The simple act of working together could also bond the group more strongly. It makes a lot of sense in a highly intelligent and social animal for there to be support of an injured animal," McComb says.
The act of helping also seems to suggest that the dolphins understand when others are suffering, and can even empathise: that is, imagine themselves in the place of the suffering dolphin. But while this is possible, McComb says the helping behaviour could evolve without the need for empathy.

- More Here

The Real Danger In Sahara

The origins of the conflict that has captured the headlines (see article) are not, primarily, either regional or global but local. Since time immemorial, lawlessness and violence have had a toehold in and around the vast Sahara desert and the terrain that stretches eastward across to Somalia in the Horn of Africa. But in the past few years the anarchy has worsened—especially since the fall of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi in late 2011, when arms flooded across the region’s porous borders. Hostage-taking, cash from ransoms, smuggling, drug-trafficking and brigandage have bolstered an array of gang leaders. Some of them, waving the banner of Islam, have seized on legitimate local grievances fuelled by poverty, discrimination and the mismanagement of corrupt governments.

For those who have learned to doubt the wisdom of most intervention, this argument points to a simple conclusion: keep out. Yet for a host of reasons what happens in the Sahara is also the world’s business. The region is a big producer of oil and gas. Shutting foreign businesses out of large parts of north Africa would be a real loss—one reason why François Hollande sent troops into Mali was to protect at least 6,000 French citizens living there. Somalia’s lawlessness led to piracy across the Indian Ocean. North African jihadists would struggle to mount a campaign of terror in Europe or America just now, but that might change one day if they controlled the resources of an entire country. Better to keep them stuck in the desert.

Beyond self-interest is the fact that short, sharp intervention can lighten the misery of millions of people. French paratroops helped end civil strife in Côte d’Ivoire in 2011. A few thousand British soldiers, having secured Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, in 2000, helped end a dreadful civil war there too. So long as African troops and a sustained programme of development are available for deployment when the battle has been won, intervention can work. That message is especially important for Barack Obama.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

The wonders of nature have been the delight and solace of… life. Nature has afforded… an ever increasing rapture, and the attempt to solve some of her myriad problems an ever-growing sense of mystery and awe.

- Alfred Russel Wallace and his letters to Darwin are now online here

Thursday, January 24, 2013

ROBOT - Liz Garbus

An unique story about ROBOTIC friendship!!

- More Here

The Physics of Wall Street - James Owen Weatherall

Brillant NYT review of James Owen Weatherall's new book The Physics of Wall Street: A Brief History of Predicting the Unpredictable has conceived me to feed my Kindle with the obligatory buy with one-click. But more importantly I want to learn how "convincingly" he refutes Taleb's Black Swan's.

The Physics of Wall Street” “is a book about the future of finance,” he writes in his introduction. “It’s about why we should look to new ideas from physics and related fields to solve the ongoing economic problems faced by countries around the world. It’s a story that should change how we think about economic policy forever.”

This is a lofty goal, made all the more ambitious by the blunders of physicists on Wall Street in recent decades, blunders he describes well but with an extremely generous view. Sure, he concedes, the crisis “was partly a failure of mathematical modeling,” but he declares that the real problem “was a failure of some very sophisticated financial institutions to think like physicists.”

Weatherall wants a new Manhattan Project to determine what’s wrong with economics, and he thinks it should be based in no small part on the contributions of physics-oriented economists, some of whom he believes have been treated unfairly by the establishment. At his worst, he sees conspiracies. Was an economics graduate student penalized when she proposed using “gauge theory,” a tool from mathematical physics, to set the Consumer Price Index? Weatherall suggests as much, implying that her “new and mathematically rigorous method” threatened a plan to lower the reported rate of inflation and thereby reduce Social Security benefits.

He has little use for Nassim Taleb, whose best-­selling book “The Black Swan” argues that the models used by traders disastrously underestimated the possibility of very negative outcomes — the black swans. To say that a model failed, Weatherall contends, is not to say that no models can work. “We use mathematical models cut from the same cloth to build bridges and to design airplane engines, to plan the electric grid and to launch spacecraft,” he writes. If you don’t trust them, why are you driving over the George Washington Bridge? “After all, at any moment an unprecedented earthquake could occur.”

Quote of the Day

We still have one party that talks the language of government and one that talks the language of the market. We have no party that is comfortable with civil society, no party that understands the ways government and the market can both crush and nurture community, no party with new ideas about how these things might blend together.

- David Brooks

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

What I've Been Reading

Principles of War by Carl von Clausewitz. This is a distilled version by Clausewitz's famous book On War and no kidding, its really about fighting wars (unlike Robert Greene's 33 Strategies). So it's up-to us to draw metaphors from this book into contemporary life.
  • Therefore, even when the likelihood of success is against us, we must not think of our undertaking as unreasonable or impossible; for it is always reasonable, if we do not know of anything better to do, and if we make the best use of the few means at our disposal. We must never lack the calmness and firmness, which are so hard to preserve in time of war. Without them the most brilliant qualities of mind are wasted.
  • In any specific action, in any measure we may undertake, we always have the choice between the most audacious and the most careful solution. Some people think that the theory of war always advises the latter. That assumption is false. If the theory does advise anything, it is the nature of war to advise the most decisive, that is, the most audacious. Theory leaves it to the military leader, however, to act according to his own courage, according to his spirit of enterprise, and his self-confidence. Make your choice, therefore, according to this inner force; but never forget that no military leader has ever become great without audacity.
  • In our plan of battle we must set this great aim: the attack on a large enemy column and its complete destruction. If our aim is low, while that of the enemy is high, we will naturally get the worst of it. We are penny-wise and pound-foolish. 
  • Each commander of a column, therefore, has the order to attack the enemy wherever he may find him and to do so with all his strength. He must not be made responsible for the success of his attack, for that would lead to indecision. But he is responsible for seeing that his corps will take part in battle with all its energy and with a spirit of self-sacrifice.
  • Never bring all our forces into play haphazardly and at one time, thereby losing all means of directing the battle; but fatigue the opponent, if possible, with few forces and conserve a decisive mass for the critical moment. Once this decisive mass has been thrown in, it must be used with the greatest audacity. 
  • Defensive warfare, therefore, does not consist of waiting idly for things to happen. We must wait only if it brings us visible and decisive advantages. That calm before the storm, when the aggressor is gathering new forces for a great blow, is most dangerous for the defender.
  • We must, therefore, be confident that the general measures we have adopted will produce the results we expect. Most important in this connection is the trust which we must have in our lieutenants. Consequently, it is important to choose men on whom we can rely and to put aside all other considerations. If we have made appropriate preparations, taking into account all possible misfortunes, so that we shall not be lost immediately if they occur, we must boldly advance into the shadows of uncertainty.
  • If we wage war with all our strength, our subordinate commanders and even our troops (especially if they are not used to warfare) will frequently encounter difficulties which they declare insurmountable. 
  • To resist all this we must have faith in our 
  • own insight and convictions. At the time this often has the appearance of stubbornness, but in reality it is that strength of mind and character which is called firmness.
  • For the aim of historians rarely is to present the absolute truth. Usually they wish to embellish the deeds of their army or to demonstrate the concordance of events with their imaginary rules. They invent history instead of writing it. We need not study much history for the purpose we propose. The detailed knowledge of a few individual engagements is more useful than the general knowledge of a great many campaigns. It is therefore more useful to read detailed accounts and diaries than regular works of history.
"A powerful emotion must stimulate the great ability of a military leader, whether it be ambition as in Caesar, hatred of the enemy as in Hannibal, or the pride in a glorious defeat, as in Frederick the Great. 
Open your heart to such emotion. Be audacious and cunning in your plans, firm and persevering in their execution, determined to find a glorious end, and fate will crown your youthful brow with a shining glory, which is the ornament of princes, and engrave your image in the hearts of your last descendants."

Quote of the Day

Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.

- UNESCO slogan via Steven Pinker

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Tell Me Again That Gold Isn’t A Bubble

Really? Gold has been a pretty good investment over the past 10 years.
It’s been an excellent investment. But there’s no logic behind the gold bubble.

Bubble? That’s a controversial word to use. How do you know the gold price will collapse?
I don’t mean the gold price will collapse. When I say “bubble”, I’m thinking of a more technical category: gold is a bubble because its investment value isn’t connected to the stream of income it produces. Housing produces rent. Bonds produce interest payments. Shares produce dividends, or at least the prospect. But gold doesn’t produce any income stream, and its value as jewellery or for industrial uses is inconsequential. Gold merely offers the prospect of resale to somebody who also wants to hold gold. Therefore it is a bubble. It may remain an excellent investment: any bubble that has persisted for 4,000 years has to be pretty resilient.

Great analogy helps clear this bubble metaphor !!

But this is all a distraction. The point is not that Germany is buying up gold but that it’s physically moving the gold it already has. So something else is going on.

Indeed. To change the subject for a moment, did I ever tell you about the Island of Yap?


There’s no need to snap. Be polite and you might learn something. Yap is in Micronesia in the West Pacific. Its coins, the rai, look like stone doughnuts. Some are fairly portable, the size of actual doughnuts, but others weigh as much as a couple of cars. The process of producing these things, 250 miles across the sea in the quarries of Palau, used to be a gigantic effort – a Victorian naturalist witnessed a tenth of Yap’s adult male population digging these things out of the ground and sailing them back to Yap.

Gosh. Couldn’t they have been more profitably employed producing something with practical value?
Tell me again that gold isn’t a bubble.

- More Here from Tim Harford

Quote of the Day

But what is liberty without wisdom and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint. Those who know what virtuous liberty is, cannot bear to see it disgraced by incapable heads, on account of their having high-sounding words in their mouths.

- Edmund Burke

Monday, January 21, 2013

Intersection Of Meditation & Human-Cell Aging

Alan Kazdin, a Yale psychologist, has decided it will be in his new journal, Clinical Psychological Science. Started this month by the Association for Psychological Science, the journal is an attempt to provide a high-profile home for interdisciplinary research that pushes the study of mental health in new—and curious—directions.

The director of the Yale Parenting Center, Kazdin formerly edited the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, a premier publication in the field. The JCCP is the “Wimbledon” of clinical psychology, he says, but its contributors are largely limited to that specialty. “It will be very hard for them to get out of their mode and open widely to a variety of disciplines,” he says. CPS is intended to fill that void.

Quick to spiel, Kazdin rattles off some of the work he’s looking for: It could be a study connecting childhood abuse to adult violence. Perhaps it’s epigenetic influences on the mental development of human beings—or mice. Maybe there’s some basic animal research that could inform studies of Alzheimer’s. All of it would be fair game, he says.

And, of course, there’s the work on aging cells and mindfulness.

Published in the journal’s first issue by a group of psychiatrists and biochemists at the University of California at San Francisco, the study searched for links between the tendency of a subject’s mind to wander and his or her telomere length. (Telomeres are stretches of repetitive DNA that sit at the end of human chromosomes, protecting them from harm.)

- More Here

Alan Kazdin Clinical Psychological Science Interview from Psych Science on Vimeo.

Quote of the Day

When hungry, eat your rice; when tired, close your eyes. Fools may laugh at me, but wise men will know what I mean.

- Lin-Chi

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Humanity Connected Is God

I needed someone to die so that I can be saved.
As I was prepping for the surgery, I wasn't thinking about Jesus but I was thinking about all the people who gotten me here. I owed every moment of my life to countless people I would never meet. Tomorrow that interconnectedness would be represented in my own physical body. Three different DNA's - individually they were useless but together they would equal one functioning human. 
Thats when I found God - God is one that happens when humanity is connected. Humanity connected is God. We all owe every moment to countless people who we will never meet - whether its the soldiers who free us because they fight for our country or it's the surgeons who give us the cures that keeps us alive. We all owe every moment of our lives to each other. We are all connected and we are all in debt to each-other. Internet gives us that opportunity to repay just a small part of that debt.

- via Andrew

Quote of the Day

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.

- Ben Franklin

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Wisdom Of The Week

As a father, I am immersed in the community of neurotic parents frantically trying to point our children in the direction of the most perfect adulthoods imaginable. When considering our kids' schooling, there is a body of wonderful research by a colleague of mine, Carol Dweck that we always cite. To wildly summarize and simplify, take a child who has just done something laudable academically, and indeed laud her, saying, Wow, that's great, you must be so smart. Alternatively, in the same circumstance, praise her instead with, Wow, that's great, you must have worked so hard. And saying the latter is a better route for improving academic performance in the future – don't praise the child's intrinsic intellectual gifts; praise the effort and discipline they chose to put into the task.

Well, what's wrong with that? Nothing if that research simply produces value-free prescription— "'You must have worked so hard' is a more effective approach for enhancing academic performance than 'You're so smart.'" But it is wrong if you are patting the homunculus on the head, concluding that a child who has achieved something through effort is a better, more praiseworthy producer of choice than a child running on plain raw smarts. That is because free will even falls by the wayside when considering self-discipline, executive function, emotional regulation and gratification postponement. For example, damage to the frontal cortex, the brain region most intimately involved in those functions, produces someone who knows the difference between right and wrong yet still can't control their behavior, even their murderous behavior. Different versions of a subtype of dopamine receptor influences how risk taking and sensation seeking a person is. If someone is infected with the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii, they are likely to become subtly more impulsive. There's a class of stress hormones that can atrophy neurons in the frontal cortex; by early elementary school, a child raised amid the duress of poverty tends to lag behind in the maturation of the frontal cortex.

Maybe we can get to the point of truly realizing that when we say, "What beautiful cheekbones you have," we are congratulating the person based on the unstated belief that they chose the shape of their zygomatic arches. But it's not that big of a problem if we can't achieve that mindset. But it is a big one if when, say, considering that six-year old whose frontocortical development has been hammered by early life stress, we mistake his crummy impulse control for lack of some moral virtue. Or to do the same in any other realm of the foibles and failures, even the monstrosities of human behavior. This is extremely relevant to the world of the criminal justice system. And to anyone who would say that it is dehumanizing to claim that criminal behavior is the end product of a broken biological machine, the answer must be that it is a hell of a lot better than damning the behavior as the end product of a rotten soul. And it is equally not a great thing to think in terms of praise, of good character, of good choice, when looking at the end products of lucky, salutary biology.

But it is so difficult to really believe that there is no free will, when so many of the threads of causality are not yet known, or are as intellectually inaccessible as having to automatically think about the behavioral consequences of everything from the selective pressures of hominid evolution to what someone had for breakfast. This difficulty is something that we should all worry about.

- Robert Sapolsky on life sans free-will in response to 2013 Edge Annual Question, WHAT *SHOULD* WE BE WORRIED ABOUT?.

Quote of the Day

Guide to healthy skepticism involves maintaining the distinction between what you think and what you feel, as in what people "feel as evidence instead of what they think as evidence or what they can prove as evidence." You should not feel about the speed of light or evolution, Jillette argues, just as you should not "think about love." In other words, you should feel “I love you,” and you should think about reality.

If you confuse the two, not only will you be cheapening the emotion of love, Jillette says, you will also be cheapening science. Instead you should think about the world and feel about your heart.

Penn Jillette is the author of Every Day is an Atheist Holiday!: More Magical Tales from the Author of God, No!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Economic Decision-Making In Poverty Depletes Cognitive Control


The folk theory of the “undeserving poor” maintains that poverty is the result of bad behavior. Might poverty instead cause behavior that appears impatient or impulsive? This paper reports a randomized lab experiment and a partially randomized field experiment, both in India, and analysis of the American Time Use Survey. In all three studies, poverty is associated with lower performance and control. There is no evidence of a specific role for willpower or a generic effect of scarcity. Poverty, by making economic decision-making more difficult for the poor, appears to have depleted cognitive control.

- Read the full paper by Dean Spears of Princeton - here

Quote of the Day

To be human is to be 'a' human, a specific person with a life history and idiosyncrasy and point of view; artificial intelligence suggest that the line between intelligent machines and people blurs most when a puree is made of that identity.

- Brian Christian, The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Minerva Project

Scheduled for a 2015 launch, its goal is to provide a top-notch education to highly-qualified students at less than half the cost of the average Ivy League school. Up until now, the company's kept itself out of the headlines, unlike other online education ventures such as Udacity and Coursera. Founder Ben Nelson's goals for the university are as ambitious as they are carefully considered: "We're creating an institution that will outlive me."

- More Here

Catastrophic Care - David Goldhill

David Goldhill's new book Catastrophic Care: How American Health Care Killed My Father--and How We Can Fix It is a follow up of his brilliant 2009 essay.

I had been suffering from an unbearable tooth ache for the past few days but had to wait couple of days before I could see the dentist. It turned out to be a simple inflammation and the dentist prescribed Vicodin. I never take pills leave alone Vicodin but I couldn't wait to get home from the pharmacy to pop the pill to kill the pain. The only thought that on my mind in those painful moments was how will someone without insurance in this country live through this pain?

David Goldhill's interview here:

On giving health care "a pass":
"There is a sense that there is a something uniquely different about health care. You'll often hear people say that health care shouldn't be a business, as if 15 million people can perform this service without caring about their economic interests. We fund all of health care through insurance. ... We think because our insurer or Medicare will reimburse something, we probably should do it. It's one of the explanations why there is so much waste in health care. ... That kind of accountability is something we've given health care a pass on because we feel it's just so different from any other human activity."

On where the money for health insurance is coming from:
"Most of us don't understand that our employer isn't really paying for our health insurance — we are. Every economist will tell you that money, which has grown so enormously, is just coming out of our paychecks. ... A major reason that wage rates in the United States flattened in the last decade and are expected to stay flat is because your employer is paying more and more for your health care instead of paying more and more to you."

Quote of the Day

The Indian criminal justice system was a market like garbage, Abdul now understood. Innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags.

- Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Have Astronomers Found Chemical Precursor To Life?

Astronomers have found tentative traces of a precursor chemical to the building blocks of life near a star-forming region about 1,000 light-years from Earth.

The signal from the molecule, hydroxylamine, which is made up of atoms of nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen, still needs to be verified. But, if confirmed, it would mean scientists had found a chemical that could potentially seed life on other worlds, and may have played a role in life's origin on our home planet about 3.6 billion years ago.

They found a very weak signal of hydroxylamine, which makes sense since, inside L1157-B1, a violent gas jet is slamming into the interstellar medium; the shock from this gas outflow would be sufficient force to trigger these chemical reactions in the otherwise frigid depths of an interstellar cloud. The result: hydroxylamine. In turn, hydroxylamine could react with other compounds, such as acetic acid, to form amino acids that could be dumped onto other worlds during space-rock collisions.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

To succeed in a domain that violates your intuitions, you need to be able to turn them off the way a pilot does when flying through clouds. Without visual cues (e.g. the horizon) you can't distinguish between gravity and acceleration. Which means if you're flying through clouds you can't tell what the attitude of the aircraft is. You could feel like you're flying straight and level while in fact you're descending in a spiral. The solution is to ignore what your body is telling you and listen only to your instruments. But it turns out to be very hard to ignore what your body is telling you. Every pilot knows about this problem and yet it is still a leading cause of accidents. You need to do what you know intellectually to be right, even though it feels wrong.

- Paul Graham

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

What I've Been Reading

48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene (wisdom in nutshell here). Well as you can see, the education continues...

Law 1Never Outshine the Master:
Always make those above you feel comfortably superior.  In your desire to please or impress them, do not go too far in displaying your talents or you might accomplish the opposite – inspire fear and insecurity.  Make your masters appear more brilliant than they are and you will attain the heights of power.

Law 2 - Never put too Much Trust in Friends, Learn how to use Enemies:
Be wary of friends-they will betray you more quickly, for they are easily aroused to envy.  They also become spoiled and tyrannical. But hire a former enemy and he will be more loyal than a friend, because he has more to prove.  In fact, you have more to fear from friends than from enemies.  If you have no enemies, find a way to make them.

Law 3 - Conceal your Intentions:
Keep people off-balance and in the dark by never revealing the purpose behind your actions.  If they have no clue what you are up to, they cannot prepare a defense.  Guide them far enough down the wrong path, envelope them in enough smoke, and by the time they realize your intentions, it will be too late.

Law 4 - Always Say Less than Necessary:
When you are trying to impress people with words, the more you say, the more common you appear, and the less in control.  Even if you are saying something banal, it will seem original if you make it vague, open-ended, and sphinxlike.  Powerful people impress and intimidate by saying less.  The more you say, the more likely you are to say something foolish.

Law 5 - So Much Depends on Reputation – Guard it with your Life:
Reputation is the cornerstone of power.  Through reputation alone you can intimidate and win; once you slip, however, you are vulnerable, and will be attacked on all sides.  Make your reputation unassailable.  Always be alert to potential attacks and thwart them before they happen.  Meanwhile, learn to destroy your enemies by opening holes in their own reputations.  Then stand aside and let public opinion hang them.

Law 6 - Court Attention at all Cost:
Everything is judged by its appearance; what is unseen counts for nothing.  Never let yourself get lost in the crowd, then, or buried in oblivion.  Stand out.  Be conspicuous, at all cost.  Make yourself a magnet of attention by appearing larger, more colorful, more mysterious, than the bland and timid masses.

Law 7 - Get others to do the Work for you, but Always Take the Credit:
Use the wisdom, knowledge, and legwork of other people to further your own cause.  Not only will such assistance save you valuable time and energy, it will give you a godlike aura of efficiency and speed.  In the end your helpers will be forgotten and you will be remembered.  Never do yourself what others can do for you.

Law 8 - Make other People come to you – use Bait if Necessary:
When you force the other person to act, you are the one in control.  It is always better to make your opponent come to you, abandoning his own plans in the process.  Lure him with fabulous gains – then attack.  You hold the cards.

Law 9 - Win through your Actions, Never through Argument:
Any momentary triumph you think gained through argument is really a Pyrrhic victory:  The resentment and ill will you stir up is stronger and lasts longer than any momentary change of opinion.  It is much more powerful to get others to agree with you through your actions, without saying a word.  Demonstrate, do not explicate.

Law 10 - Infection: Avoid the Unhappy and Unlucky:
You can die from someone else’s misery – emotional states are as infectious as disease.  You may feel you are helping the drowning man but you are only precipitating your own disaster.  The unfortunate sometimes draw misfortune on themselves; they will also draw it on you.  Associate with the happy and fortunate instead.

Law 11 - Learn to Keep People Dependent on You:
To maintain your independence you must always be needed and wanted.  The more you are relied on, the more freedom you have.  Make people depend on you for their happiness and prosperity and you have nothing to fear.  Never teach them enough so that they can do without you.

Law 12 - Use Selective Honesty and Generosity to Disarm your Victim:
One sincere and honest move will cover over dozens of dishonest ones.  Open-hearted gestures of honesty and generosity bring down the guard of even the most suspicious people.  Once your selective honesty opens a hole in their armor, you can deceive and manipulate them at will.  A timely gift – a Trojan horse – will serve the same purpose.

Law 13 - When Asking for Help, Appeal to People’s Self-Interest, Never to their Mercy or Gratitude:
If you need to turn to an ally for help, do not bother to remind him of your past assistance and good deeds.  He will find a way to ignore you.  Instead, uncover something in your request, or in your alliance with him, that will benefit him, and emphasize it out of all proportion.  He will respond enthusiastically when he sees something to be gained for himself.

Law 14 - Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy:
Knowing about your rival is critical.  Use spies to gather valuable information that will keep you a step ahead.  Better still: Play the spy yourself.  In polite social encounters, learn to probe.  Ask indirect questions to get people to reveal their weaknesses and intentions.  There is no occasion that is not an opportunity for artful spying.

Law 15 - Crush your Enemy Totally:
All great leaders since Moses have known that a feared enemy must be crushed completely.  (Sometimes they have learned this the hard way.)  If one ember is left alight, no matter how dimly it smolders, a fire will eventually break out.  More is lost through stopping halfway than through total annihilation:  The enemy will recover, and will seek revenge.  Crush him, not only in body but in spirit.

Law 16 - Use Absence to Increase Respect and Honor:
Too much circulation makes the price go down:  The more you are seen and heard from, the more common you appear.  If you are already established in a group, temporary withdrawal from it will make you more talked about, even more admired.  You must learn when to leave.  Create value through scarcity.

Law 17 - Keep Others in Suspended Terror: Cultivate an Air of Unpredictability:
Humans are creatures of habit with an insatiable need to see familiarity in other people’s actions.  Your predictability gives them a sense of control.  Turn the tables: Be deliberately unpredictable.  Behavior that seems to have no consistency or purpose will keep them off-balance, and they will wear themselves out trying to explain your moves.  Taken to an extreme, this strategy can intimidate and terrorize.

Law 18 - Do Not Build Fortresses to Protect Yourself – Isolation is Dangerous:
The world is dangerous and enemies are everywhere – everyone has to protect themselves.  A fortress seems the safest. But isolation exposes you to more dangers than it protects you from – it cuts you off from valuable information, it makes you conspicuous and an easy target.  Better to circulate among people find allies, mingle.  You are shielded from your enemies by the crowd.

Law 19 - Know Who You’re Dealing with – Do Not Offend the Wrong Person:
There are many different kinds of people in the world, and you can never assume that everyone will react to your strategies in the same way.  Deceive or outmaneuver some people and they will spend the rest of their lives seeking revenge.  They are wolves in lambs’ clothing.  Choose your victims and opponents carefully, then – never offend or deceive the wrong person.

Law 20 - Do Not Commit to Anyone:
It is the fool who always rushes to take sides.  Do not commit to any side or cause but yourself.  By maintaining your independence, you become the master of others – playing people against one another, making them pursue you.

Law 21 - Play a Sucker to Catch a Sucker – Seem Dumber than your Mark:
No one likes feeling stupider than the next persons.  The trick, is to make your victims feel smart – and not just smart, but smarter than you are.  Once convinced of this, they will never suspect that you may have ulterior motives.

Law 22 - Use the Surrender Tactic: Transform Weakness into Power:
When you are weaker, never fight for honor’s sake; choose surrender instead.  Surrender gives you time to recover, time to torment and irritate your conqueror, time to wait for his power to wane.  Do not give him the satisfaction of fighting and defeating you – surrender first.  By turning the other check you infuriate and unsettle him.  Make surrender a tool of power.

Law 23 - Concentrate Your Forces:
Conserve your forces and energies by keeping them concentrated at their strongest point.  You gain more by finding a rich mine and mining it deeper, than by flitting from one shallow mine to another – intensity defeats extensity every time.  When looking for sources of power to elevate you, find the one key patron, the fat cow who will give you milk for a long time to come.

Law 24 - Play the Perfect Courtier:
The perfect courtier thrives in a world where everything revolves around power and political dexterity.  He has mastered the art of indirection; he flatters, yields to superiors, and asserts power over others in the mot oblique and graceful manner.  Learn and apply the laws of courtiership and there will be no limit to how far you can rise in the court.

Law 25 - Re-Create Yourself:
Do not accept the roles that society foists on you.  Re-create yourself by forging a new identity, one that commands attention and never bores the audience.  Be the master of your own image rather than letting others define if for you.  Incorporate dramatic devices into your public gestures and actions – your power will be enhanced and your character will seem larger than life.

Law 26 - Keep Your Hands Clean:
You must seem a paragon of civility and efficiency: Your hands are never soiled by mistakes and nasty deeds.  Maintain such a spotless appearance by using others as scapegoats and cat’s-paws to disguise your involvement.

Law 27 - Play on People’s Need to Believe to Create a Cultlike Following:
People have an overwhelming desire to believe in something.  Become the focal point of such desire by offering them a cause, a new faith to follow.  Keep your words vague but full of promise; emphasize enthusiasm over rationality and clear thinking.  Give your new disciples rituals to perform, ask them to make sacrifices on your behalf.  In the absence of organized religion and grand causes, your new belief system will bring you untold power.

Law 28 - Enter Action with Boldness:
If you are unsure of a course of action, do not attempt it.  Your doubts and hesitations will infect your execution.  Timidity is dangerous:  Better to enter with boldness.  Any mistakes you commit through audacity are easily corrected with more audacity.  Everyone admires the bold; no one honors the timid.

Law 29 - Plan All the Way to the End:
The ending is everything.  Plan all the way to it, taking into account all the possible consequences, obstacles, and twists of fortune that might reverse your hard work and give the glory to others.  By planning to the end you will not be overwhelmed by circumstances and you will know when to stop.  Gently guide fortune and help determine the future by thinking far ahead.

Law 30 - Make your Accomplishments Seem Effortless:
Your actions must seem natural and executed with ease.  All the toil and practice that go into them, and also all the clever tricks, must be concealed.  When you act, act effortlessly, as if you could do much more.  Avoid the temptation of revealing how hard you work – it only raises questions.  Teach no one your tricks or they will be used against you.

Law 31 - Control the Options: Get Others to Play with the Cards you Deal:
The best deceptions are the ones that seem to give the other person a choice:  Your victims feel they are in control, but are actually your puppets.  Give people options that come out in your favor whichever one they choose.  Force them to make choices between the lesser of two evils, both of which serve your purpose.  Put them on the horns of a dilemma:  They are gored wherever they turn.

Law 32 - Play to People’s Fantasies:
The truth is often avoided because it is ugly and unpleasant.  Never appeal to truth and reality unless you are prepared for the anger that comes for disenchantment.  Life is so harsh and distressing that people who can manufacture romance or conjure up fantasy are like oases in the desert:  Everyone flocks to them. There is great power in tapping into the fantasies of the masses.

Law 33 - Discover Each Man’s Thumbscrew:
Everyone has a weakness, a gap in the castle wall.  That weakness is usual y an insecurity, an uncontrollable emotion or need; it can also be a small secret pleasure.  Either way, once found, it is a thumbscrew you can turn to your advantage.

Law 34 - Be Royal in your Own Fashion:  Act like a King to be treated like one:
The way you carry yourself will often determine how you are treated; In the long run, appearing vulgar or common will make people disrespect you.  For a king respects himself and inspires the same sentiment in others.  By acting regally and confident of your powers, you make yourself seem destined to wear a crown.

Law 35 - Master the Art of Timing:
Never seem to be in a hurry – hurrying betrays a lack of control over yourself, and over time.  Always seem patient, as if you know that everything will come to you eventually.  Become a detective of the right moment; sniff out the spirit of the times, the trends that will carry you to power.  Learn to stand back when the time is not yet ripe, and to strike fiercely when it has reached fruition.

Law 36 - Disdain Things you cannot have:  Ignoring them is the best Revenge:
By acknowledging a petty problem you give it existence and credibility.  The more attention you pay an enemy, the stronger you make him; and a small mistake is often made worse and more visible when you try to fix it.  It is sometimes best to leave things alone.  If there is something you want but cannot have, show contempt for it.  The less interest you reveal, the more superior you seem.

Law 37 - Create Compelling Spectacles:
Striking imagery and grand symbolic gestures create the aura of power – everyone responds to them.  Stage spectacles for those around you, then full of arresting visuals and radiant symbols that heighten your presence.  Dazzled by appearances, no one will notice what you are really doing.

Law 38 - Think as you like but Behave like others:
If you make a show of going against the times, flaunting your unconventional ideas and unorthodox ways, people will think that you only want attention and that you look down upon them.  They will find a way to punish you for making them feel inferior.  It is far safer to blend in and nurture the common touch. Share your originality only with tolerant friends and those who are sure to appreciate your uniqueness.

Law 39 - Stir up Waters to Catch Fish:
Anger and emotion are strategically counterproductive.  You must always stay calm and objective.  But if you can make your enemies angry while staying calm yourself, you gain a decided advantage.  Put your enemies off-balance: Find the chink in their vanity through which you can rattle them and you hold the strings.

Law 40 - Despise the Free Lunch:
What is offered for free is dangerous – it usually involves either a trick or a hidden obligation.  What has worth is worth paying for.  By paying your own way you stay clear of gratitude, guilt, and deceit.  It is also often wise to pay the full price – there is no cutting corners with excellence.  Be lavish with your money and keep it circulating, for generosity is a sign and a magnet for power.

Law 41 - Avoid Stepping into a Great Man’s Shoes:
What happens first always appears better and more original than what comes after.  If you succeed a great man or have a famous parent, you will have to accomplish double their achievements to outshine them.  Do not get lost in their shadow, or stuck in a past not of your own making:  Establish your own name and identity by changing course.  Slay the overbearing father, disparage his legacy, and gain power by shining in your own way.

Law 42 - Strike the Shepherd and the Sheep will Scatter:
Trouble can often be traced to a single strong individual – the stirrer, the arrogant underling, the poisoned of goodwill.  If you allow such people room to operate, others will succumb to their influence.  Do not wait for the troubles they cause to multiply, do not try to negotiate with them – they are irredeemable.  Neutralize their influence by isolating or banishing them.  Strike at the source of the trouble and the sheep will scatter.

Law 43 - Work on the Hearts and Minds of Others:
Coercion creates a reaction that will eventually work against you.  You must seduce others into wanting to move in your direction.  A person you have seduced becomes your loyal pawn.  And the way to seduce others is to operate on their individual psychologies and weaknesses.  Soften up the resistant by working on their emotions, playing on what they hold dear and what they fear.  Ignore the hearts and minds of others and they will grow to hate you.

Law 44 - Disarm and Infuriate with the Mirror Effect:
The mirror reflects reality, but it is also the perfect tool for deception: When you mirror your enemies, doing exactly as they do, they cannot figure out your strategy.  The Mirror Effect mocks and humiliates them, making them overreact.  By holding up a mirror to their psyches, you seduce them with the illusion that you share their values; by holding up a mirror to their actions, you teach them a lesson.  Few can resist the power of Mirror Effect.

Law 45 - Preach the Need for Change, but Never Reform too much at Once:
Everyone understands the need for change in the abstract, but on the day-to-day level people are creatures of habit.  Too much innovation is traumatic, and will lead to revolt.  If you are new to a position of power, or an outsider trying to build a power base, make a show of respecting the old way of doing things.  If change is necessary, make it feel like a gentle improvement on the past.

Law 46 - Never appear too Perfect:
Appearing better than others is always dangerous, but most dangerous of all is to appear to have no faults or weaknesses.  Envy creates silent enemies.  It is smart to occasionally display defects, and admit to harmless vices, in order to deflect envy and appear more human and approachable.  Only gods and the dead can seem perfect with impunity.

Law 47 - Do not go Past the Mark you Aimed for; In Victory, Learn when to Stop:
The moment of victory is often the moment of greatest peril.  In the heat of victory, arrogance and overconfidence can push you past the goal you had aimed for, and by going too far, you make more enemies than you defeat.  Do not allow success to go to your head.  There is no substitute for strategy and careful planning.  Set a goal, and when you reach it, stop.

Law 48 - Assume Formlessness:
By taking a shape, by having a visible plan, you open yourself to attack.  Instead of taking a form for your enemy to grasp, keep yourself adaptable and on the move.  Accept the fact that nothing is certain and no law is fixed.  The best way to protect yourself is to be as fluid and formless as water; never bet on stability or lasting order.  Everything changes.

Quote of the Day

What you don't want is always going to be with you
What you want is never going to be with you
Where you don't want to go, you have to go
And the moment you think you're going to live more, you're going to die.

- Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

Monday, January 14, 2013

Hologenome - The Other You

Back in the 1980s, Richard Jefferson used the enzyme to develop a powerful technique now relied upon by thousands of genetic engineers around the world. At the same time, he was intrigued by the enzyme's normal role. Its recycling effect helps determine the blood levels of many compounds, including important substances such as sex hormones. Jefferson realised that the bacteria within us, far from being passive hangers-on, must affect us in profound ways.

In the past decade, this view has started to become mainstream. Study after study has shown how the microbes living in us and on us - the microbiome - can affect our health and even happiness. But back in the 1980s, Jefferson took this idea even further. If microbes are so important, he reasoned, they must play a big role in evolution too. He came up with what he called the hologenome theory of evolution. "The hologenome is the biggest breakthrough in thinking I've had in my life," he says.
A couple of decades later, another researcher come up with much the same idea, even giving it the same name. And although this approach is only starting to be explored, hints are beginning to emerge that symbiotic microbes can indeed play a much bigger role in evolution than anyone thought.

What struck Jefferson is that our microbiome plays a critical role in some key processes. Levels of sex hormones obviously affect us in many ways, for instance - and yet as much as 65 per cent of circulating testosterone cycles through microbes, according to one study Jefferson came across at the time.

It's gets more interesting....

Early in the 19th century, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck devised a theory of evolution incorporating the then-popular idea that organisms could pass on adaptive traits acquired during their lifetime. Thus, giraffes evolved their long necks because they were in the habit of stretching their necks. Darwin believed something similar, but such ideas became discredited with the development of modern genetics. The hologenome theory does suggest that animals can sometimes evolve via the inheritance of acquired characteristics, Rosenberg says, but it does so in a way that can be verified by experiment.

After he published his ideas, he and his wife Ilana Zilber-Rosenberg began combing the literature to find related studies. They stumbled across a 1989 paper by Diane Dodd, then a postdoc at Yale University, who had found that changing the diet of a fruit fly could alter the flies' mating choices after just two generations.

"When I read this, I started jumping up and down," Rosenberg said. "It had to be the microbes. I just knew it. Nothing else could explain such a rapid change."

To prove this, Rosenberg got his PhD student Gil Sharon to try replicate Dodd's results. Sure enough, after two generations, flies fed on molasses would no longer mate with flies on a regular starch. Next, Sharon gave the flies rifampicin to kill off their bacteria. Afterwards, starch flies happily copulated with molasses flies, showing that bacteria were indeed responsible.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

Security exists to facilitate trust. Trust is the goal, and security is how we enable it. Think of it this way: As members of modern society, we need to trust all sorts of people, institutions and systems. We have to trust that they'll treat us honestly, won't take advantage of us and so on – in short, that they'll behave in a trustworthy manner. Security is how we induce trustworthiness, and by extension enable trust.

An example might make this clearer. For commerce to work smoothly, merchants and customers need to trust each other. Customers need to trust that merchants won't misrepresent the goods they're selling. Merchants need to trust that customers won't steal stuff without paying. Each needs to trust that the other won't cheat somehow. Security is how we make that work, billions of times a day. We do that through obvious measures like alarm systems that prevent theft and anti-counterfeiting measures in currency that prevent fraud, but I mean a lot of other things as well. Consumer protection laws prevent merchants from cheating. Other laws prevent burglaries. Less formal measures like reputational considerations help keep merchants, and customers in less anonymous communities, from cheating. And our inherent moral compass keeps most of us honest most of the time.

In my new book Liars and Outliers, I call these societal pressures. None of them are perfect, but all of them – working together – are what keeps society functioning. Of course there is, and always will be, the occasional merchant or customer who cheats. But as long as they're rare enough, society thrives.

Bruce Schneier - Five Books Interview

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Myth of The Four-Year College Degree

While undergraduate education is typically billed as a four-year experience, many students, particularly at public universities, actually take five, six or even more years to attain a degree. According to the Department of Education, fewer than 40% of students who enter college each year graduate within four years, while almost 60% of students graduate in six years. At public schools, less than a third of students graduate on time.

“It’s a huge issue for society,” says Matthew Chingos, an author of Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities. “It’s a huge issue for the individual students who are spending more money on tuition than they need to. The longer they wait to graduate and get a job, those are extra years of their careers when they’re in college and not working and not making money.” Chingos points out that delayed graduation at public schools also affects taxpayers who are subsidizing students’ education.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

With my reputation as the human dustbin, the young people in my extended family are always giving me meat and other food because it's a bit past its date stamp. "We know you'll eat it, Mike" and I do. It's partly a function of my temperament, but also experience. In my formative years after World War II when rationing persisted – into the early 1950s - food was as tight, tighter even, than when Hitler was on our case.

Whereas the young people, who are always ticking me off for reactionary and outdated thinking, tend to think globally about the planet's problems, they also tend to leave all the lights on locally – and throw food into the bin locally too. As renewed austerity bites, my sense is that it's generally the old, who can remember not having much, who adapt more quickly to having less. You can see that in supermarket queues too. Don't people know it's cheaper to buy loose carrots?

Time to stand up to food waste

Saturday, January 12, 2013

What I Learned The Day A Dying Whale Spared My Life

The two dying whales struggled to hold on to life between the harpoon boat and the six of us in three boats, sitting motionless on the swells.

I could not take my eyes off the dying whale closest to us. His tail flayed the sea and pink foam frothed all around him.

Then suddenly the whale was looking directly at me. I saw his huge eye and I could see that he saw me. At that moment he dove once again and I saw pink bloody bubbles coming to the surface, moving closer to our boat. Within seconds the whale's head shot above the surface of the sea and began to tower above, rising higher, but as if in slow motion, and angled so that we could see that his intent was to come crashing down upon us.

And as his head rose ever higher I saw that eye once again, so close that I could see my own reflection in that deep dark orb. Suddenly I was struck with the realisation that this whale understood what we were doing.

His lower jaw hung down almost touching the side of our inflatable boat, so close that I could have reached across and encircled one of the six-inch teeth with my fingers.

His muscles tensed and he stopped rising, and began to slowly slide at an angle back into the sea. I kept eye contact with him until his eye sank beneath the surface of the sea and disappeared.

And so he died.

He could have killed us, but he had not, and the look in that eye has haunted me ever since.

I felt understanding and I knew he knew that we were there to save him, not to kill him. I felt ashamed that we had failed. I felt powerless and angry, frustrated and awed all at once. I felt indebted to him for sparing my life.

But I also saw something else in that eye, and that was pity.

Not for himself nor for his kind, but for us.

An uncomfortable pallor of shame fell over me as I sensed what the whale perceived. It was indeed pity, but pity for us, that we could take life so ruthlessly, so thoughtlessly, and so mercilessly; and for what?

We sat there in our little inflatable boats in the midst of the Soviet whaling fleet with the bodies of a half dozen sperm whales lying lifeless in the swell. I watched the sun begin to set in the west and I remembered that the Russians were killing whales primarily for the valuable spermaceti oil.

Spermaceti oil is valued for its high resistance to heat, and thus it is used in machinery where there is excessive heat. One of the demands for this oil by the Soviets was for use in the production on intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Here they were slaughtering these magnificent, intelligent, socially complex, wondrous sentient beings for the purpose of making a weapon designed for the mass extermination of human beings.

And I thought to myself, are we really this insane?

It is that thought, that unanswered question, that has haunted me every day since.

It is from what I saw in the eye of that whale that has led me to devote my entire adult life to the defence of the whales and the other creatures of the sea, because I know that if we cannot save the whales, the turtles, the sharks, the tuna, and the complex marine biodiversity, that the oceans will not survive. If the life in our oceans is diminished, humanity is diminished and if the oceans die, humanity will die; for we cannot survive on this planet with a dead ocean.

Captain Paul Watson is a co-founder of the Greenpeace Foundation and the founder in 1977 of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

Wisdom Of The Week

Among other things, you'll find that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You're by no means alone on that score, you'll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry.

- J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

Quote of the Day

In nine lifetimes, you'll never know as much about your cat as your cat knows about you.

- Michel de Montaigne

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Volcker Way

Review of new biography of Paul Volcker - Volcker: The Triumph of Persistence by William L. Silber

When I talk to Volcker today, he speaks of a time when honor was the most important thing a person had. He notes that in the early years when he worked in government, many large trade associations didn't even have offices in Washington, D.C., and no banker worried more about his bonus than his reputation.

At every stage of his career, Volcker had the option to leave government and take a lucrative job in the private sector. But he chose public service. It's astounding that Washington manages to recruit professionals of Volcker's caliber while paying them modestly and putting them through all the tribulations of government work, from partisan Senate confirmation hearings to extensive rules and disclosures that they must abide by in their personal lives. Volcker still believes that public service is the most important thing someone can do, but he fears that this attitude may be a relic of a bygone era.

If we are lucky, his fears will be proved wrong. The lessons from Volcker's career and his worldview must continue to inform U.S. economic policy in the years to come if the United States is to maintain its global economic leadership. The country may never produce another figure of such towering stature, wisdom, and determination. But those who come after Volcker would be wise to heed his advice and try to follow in his admittedly giant footsteps.

Quote of the Day

"So far we have an Indian boy named after a French swimming pool on a Japanese ship full of animals heading off to Canada," the writer played by Rafe Spall says, just before the ordeal on the high seas begins. Or in the words of Paul Hanneman, co-president of international distribution at Fox: "This is truly a global picture. You've got multiple religions; it starts in India and ends in Mexico; but most of the movie takes place on the ocean, so it's really any man and anywhere."

- Life of Pi is a global vision for mainstream cinema

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Higher Education Bubble

Review of the new book The Higher Education Bubble by Glenn Harlan Reynolds:

Reynolds’ core argument seems correct: social and technological changes are pushing higher education toward dramatic changes, including universities -- and individual professors -- offering classes over the Internet. Smart academics will begin to prepare now for this transformation.

We Have No idea What A Self Is. So How Can We Fix It?

I don’t know, but misery loves company, and such acts of auto-insubordination happen all the time. They go some way toward explaining the popularity of the self-help movement, since clearly we need help, but they also reveal a fundamental paradox at its heart. How can I want to achieve a goal so badly that I will expend considerable time, energy, and money trying to reach it while simultaneously needing to be coaxed, bribed, tricked, and punished into a compliance that is inconsistent at best?

This is where the cheerfully practical and accessible domain of self-help bumps up against one of the thorniest problems in all of science and philosophy. In the 1,600 years since Augustine left behind selfhood for sainthood, we’ve made very little empirical progress toward understanding our own inner workings. We have, however, developed an $11 billion industry dedicated to telling us how to improve our lives. Put those two facts together and you get a vexing question: Can self-help work if we have no idea how a self works?

Kathryn Schulz author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, in this enlightening column continues...

The self helps itself. I know it firsthand, as well as second- and thirdhand, and so do you. But none of us—no matter what anyone says to the contrary—can tell you precisely how it happens. Maybe it was the therapy, in my case. Maybe it was the running. Maybe it was David D. Burns, M.D. Maybe it was two or three or all of the above in combination. Maybe it was some slight incident I didn’t even register at the time. Maybe it was time.

Or maybe we humans change the way species do: through random variation. If that’s the case, then the strategy we’ve arrived at out of necessity might be the best one anyone could design. Try something. Better still, try everything—throw all the options at the occluding wall of the self and see what sticks. Meditation, marathon training, fasting, freewriting, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, speed dating, volunteering, moving to Auckland, redecorating the living room: As long as you steer clear of self-harm and felony, you might as well do anything you can to your inner and outer ecosystems that might induce a beneficial mutation.