Thursday, February 28, 2013

What I've Been Reading

A Matter of Life. The Story of IVF - a Medical Breakthrough by Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe. We all owe immense gratitude to Edwards and Steptoe for their hard-work and sacrifices made to honor many humans as Dad's and Mom's. We should also never ever forget those little animals who laid their lives to "complete" so many of our families.

On the joy and pleasure of science and scientific discovery:

When I next peered down the microscope I could not help but feel elated. Surely something was beginning to move? Just a suggestion, but something. I must be patient. I must not look at the last egg too soon. The next four hours passed slowly, slowly, but when I did examine the final oocyte I felt as much excitement as I had ever experienced in all my life. Excitement beyond belief. At twenty-eight hours the chromosomes were just beginning their march through the centre of the egg. Fine, clear, absolutely visible, a slight to reward all my past efforts. 

To observe a living vibrant embryo beginning its early steps of development is a most stimulating sight for an embryologist - whether it be mouse, rabbit, sea-urchin or human. 

On the ubiquitous fad of fear-mongers unleashing their imagination sans the knowledge of science:

Terrible Brave-New-World visions such as those irritated me. They still do. They are based on the pessimistic assumption that the worst will happen. The whole edifice of their argument is fragile - that nuclear physics led inevitably to the atom bomb, electricity to the electric chair, civil engineering to the gas-chambers. Surely acceptance of the beginnings does not necesitate embracing undesirable ends? Even well meant attempts to describe our work were unsuccessful. 

'A man's character is his destiny,' wrote the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, 2500 years ago. To a large degree, a man's character is determined by his genes, and though I did not know it for certain then my own destiny was being determined in that institute of Animal Genetics.

- Robert Edwards

Triumphs of Experience - George Vaillant

George Vaillant’s 70-year longitudinal study of 268 Harvard students, which is one the greatest psychological studies ever is now captured in his new book, Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study (review here via Andrew)

The study, a product of the period in which it was conceived, has its limitations. Its only subjects are white, privileged men. Still, many of its findings seem universal. If they could be boiled down to a single revelation, it would be that the secret to a happy life is relationships, relationships, relationships. The best predictors of adult success and well-being are a childhood in which one feels accepted and nurtured; an empathic coping style at ages 20 through 35; and warm adult relationships.

Regarding finances, just one of Vaillant’s 10 measures of adult well-being, men who had good sibling relationships when young made an average of $51,000 per year more than those with poor sibling relationships or no siblings at all, and men who had warm mothers earned $87,000 more annually than those who did not (in 2009 dollars). Overall, reflecting their privilege, the Grant Men made a lot of money. The findings go on and on like that, and the message relentlessly emerges: The secret to life is good and enduring intimate relationships and friendships. Mental health, as Sigmund Freud and Erik Erikson indicated, is embodied by the capacity to love and to work.

Years ago when I first read his study, it felt like a confirmation bias of our instincts and it changed my perspective on how I live my life.

Quote of the Day

There’s a certain moment when you realize that you’ve actually just left the planet for a bit and that nobody can touch you. . .When it works, baby, you’ve got wings.

- Keith Richards in his biography Life

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

How Species & Animals Are Named

When a creature is discovered, it is first necessary to determine whether it is a new species, a new subspecies or merely a variant of an already described and known species. As there is no single, unambiguous definition of “species” this determination can be time-consuming and subject to discussion and disagreement.

By tradition, the right to name a new species is given to the discoverer, or more precisely the scientific describer of the species (who is not necessarily the person who discovered the species in nature). There are, however, many regulations to be followed when naming a species, all of them fixed by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) when animals are concerned, or the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN) for plants.

In general, the nomenclature of creatures follows a system established 1758 by Carl von Linné and each scientific species name is a composite of two parts, namely the genus name and the species name. For example, the scientific name of the European Common Frog is Rana temporaria, where Rana is the genus name and temporaria is the species name.

As the genus name should reflect relationships among different species within the same genus, the first attempt after each discovery is to allocate the creature to a respective genus (and the systematic categories of higher hierarchical levels). Thus in most cases, with exception of the discovery of new genera, the genus name is fixed already, whereas the species name may be freely chosen by the scientic describer of the species within the frame of the ICZN or ICBN regulations.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

For in truth, Habit is a violent and treacherous schoolteacher. Gradually and stealthily she slides her authorative foot into us; then, having by this gentle and humble beginning planted it firmly within us, helped by time she later discloses an angry tyrannous countenance, against which we are no longer allowed even to lift up our eyes. At every turn we find habit infringing the rules of Nature.

- Michel de Montaigne

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The One Skill Bill Gates & Mark Zuckerberg Think Kids Should Learn


Quote of the Day

It barely takes 10 minutes to reach low Earth orbit. It probably takes longer for most urbanites to commute to work. I want to be able to "cab it" to low Earth orbit. I am dreaming of private astronaut taxis. The first generation will take paying passengers into orbit. The second generation will ferry us to the moon and Mars.

- Susmita Mohanty is CEO of Earth2Orbit

Monday, February 25, 2013

Did Human Language Evolve From Birdsong?

When Darwin wondered at the similarities between birdsong and human speech in the 19th century, he was simply observing their similarities in pattern. But in a newly published paper called The Emergence of Hierarchical Structure in Human Language, three MIT linguists argue that Darwin’s observation was incredibly prescient--in fact, human language may have evolved directly from the communication patterns of birds, bees, and primates.

Building on a foundation laid by the godfather of modern linguistics--Noam Chomsky--the paper’s authors argue that human language takes place on two basic levels. There’s the lexical plane, where we communicate content, and the expressive plane, where grammatical details and sentence structure occur. Fascinatingly, both of these patterns have precedents in the animal world. Birdsong is uniquely expressive, but contains almost no lexical content, while primates, bees, and other animals communicate largely on the expressive plane through simple words or visual cues. At some point, the paper’s authors posit, we humans got the bright idea to combine the two forms of communication, and voilà (sort of)--human language.

- More Here

Is Smart Technology Making Us Dumb?

How can we avoid completely surrendering to the new technology? The key is learning to differentiate between "good smart" and "bad smart."

Devices that are "good smart" leave us in complete control of the situation and seek to enhance our decision-making by providing more information. For example: An Internet-jacked kettle that alerts us when the national power grid is overloaded (a prototype has been developed by U.K. engineer Chris Adams) doesn't prevent us from boiling yet another cup of tea, but it does add an extra ethical dimension to that choice. Likewise, a grocery cart that can scan the bar codes of products we put into it, informing us of their nutritional benefits and country of origin, enhances—rather than impoverishes—our autonomy (a prototype has been developed by a group of designers at the Open University, also in the U.K.).

Technologies that are "bad smart," by contrast, make certain choices and behaviors impossible. Smart gadgets in the latest generation of cars—breathalyzers that can check if we are sober, steering sensors that verify if we are drowsy, facial recognition technologies that confirm we are who we say we are—seek to limit, not to expand, what we can do. This may be an acceptable price to pay in situations where lives are at stake, such as driving, but we must resist any attempt to universalize this logic.

-  More Here

How to Break a Bad Habit

Changing a bad habit requires a good understanding of one’s self so that one can target the purpose the habit serves in one’s life. Changing the habit requires patience and building up alternative positive coping habits. Quitting is largely a matter of patience, persistence and determination that ensures the outcome.

- Read rest of this brilliant post here

Quote of the Day

I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.

William Deseriewicz

Sunday, February 24, 2013

What Data Can Do - Build Better Schools

The test of truth in life is not whether we can remember what we learned in school, but whether we are prepared for change.

- Andreas Schleicher

Quote of the Day

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects Americans from “unreasonable searches and seizures,” but it’s not clear how courts will apply that to drones.

- The Drones Come Home

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Nassim Taleb & Daniel Kahneman Discusses Antifragility at NYPL

If you have don't have time, then please make time this year to read these two enlightening books:

Wisdom Of The Week

Life is full of surprises, even willpower and discipline can come from the least expected frontiers. I had avoided smart phones like plague for years with great success while trying very very hard to make meditation a daily habit with no luck. Early this year, I had to take the leap (for work) and bought that dreaded smart phone (and loving it).

Thanks to Ben, I downloaded the meditation app Insight Timer last week and for the first time ever, I have been meditating everyday since then. It's only 15 minutes a day but the app has enforced a discipline now. I don't have a precise answer on how this app is helping me but I am glad to stay perplexed as long as this habit is implanted. It's paradoxical that the gadget blamed as the paragon of distraction is helping me focus.

There was an another insight from Katja Grace this week:

I would like to think I wouldn’t have been friends with slave owners, anti-semites or wife-beaters, but then again most of my friends couldn’t give a damn about the suffering of animals, so I guess I would have been.  
  - Robert Wiblin

People here and now are no different in these regards, as far as I can tell. We may think we have better social norms, but the average person has little more reason to believe this than the average person five hundred years ago did. People are perhaps freer here and now to follow their own hearts on many moral issues, but that can’t make much difference to issues where the problem is that people’s hearts don’t automatically register a problem. So even if you aren’t a slave-owner, I claim you are probably using a similar decision procedure to that which would lead you to be one in different circumstances.

Are these really bad ways for most people to behave? Or are they pretty good heuristics for non-ethicists? It would be a huge amount of work for everyone to independently figure out for themselves the answer to every ethical question. What heuristics should people use?

Quote of the Day

I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.

- Leonardo da Vinci

Friday, February 22, 2013

What Data Can Do - Predict Oscars !

The short version: our forecasts for the Academy Awards are based on which candidates have won other awards in their category. We give more weight to awards that have frequently corresponded with the Oscar winners in the past, and which are voted on by people who will also vote for the Oscars. We don’t consider any statistical factors beyond that, and we doubt that doing so would provide all that much insight.

- More Here from Nate Silver.

Read the the whole thing to get insights on how to choose and weigh different factors to segregate Signal from Noise.

What Data Can’t Do

  • Data struggles with the social - Network scientists can map your interactions with the six co-workers you see during 76 percent of your days, but they can’t capture your devotion to the childhood friends you see twice a year, let alone Dante’s love for Beatrice, whom he met twice. 
  • Data struggles with context - People are really good at telling stories that weave together multiple causes and multiple contexts. Data analysis is pretty bad at narrative and emergent thinking, and it cannot match the explanatory suppleness of even a mediocre novel. 
  • Data creates bigger haystacks - This is a point Nassim Taleb, the author of “Antifragile,” has made. As we acquire more data, we have the ability to find many, many more statistically significant correlations. Most of these correlations are spurious and deceive us when we’re trying to understand a situation. Falsity grows exponentially the more data we collect. The haystack gets bigger, but the needle we are looking for is still buried deep inside. 
  • Big data has trouble with big problems - For example, we’ve had huge debates over the best economic stimulus, with mountains of data, and as far as I know not a single major player in this debate has been persuaded by data to switch sides. 
  • Data favors memes over masterpieces - Data analysis can detect when large numbers of people take an instant liking to some cultural product. But many important (and profitable) products are hated initially because they are unfamiliar. 
  • Data obscures values - One of the points was that data is never raw; it’s always structured according to somebody’s predispositions and values.

AI & The Future of Prescribing Medicine

The latest study in this realm, coming out of Indiana University, claims to validate predictive computer models that help physicians prescribe the optimal course of medicine for their patients vs. the physician alone. The idea is simple – that doctors should rely heavily on data rather than their own “intuition” in order to make better and more “economical” prescribing decisions. On its face, the rationale behind the prescribing study makes perfect sense. Patient outcome studies are, by and large, reliable data from which one can make informed decisions.

And I understand that most (as the article states) aren’t calling for data models to “replace” a physician’s judgment. But the concept of physicians relying too heavily on data to make critical treatment decisions is troublesome, as physicians’ “intuition” and personal experience is exactly what you are paying for when you seek a certain course of therapy.

In the field of psychiatry, for example, talk therapy is woven into the fabric of a patient’s diagnosis and treatment cascade. Although psychiatrists are medical doctors, and sustain an astounding base of biological and neurological knowledge, their practice is as much of an art form as it is a scientific endeavor. The physician’s intuition is critical, and they must rely on their experience, gut, and focus on the individual case. Human interaction and emotional connection are irreplaceable in this field, and will be decisive factors in prescribing the right medical treatment – whether it’s a drug, device or procedure.

In the case of an internist, we may see more of a use for the computer model – especially if he/she is isolated and doesn’t see the sheer number of patients the way urban doctors do. And older internists that are set in their ways, and not familiar with the latest and greatest therapeutic options and procedures in their profession, would certainly elevate their patients’ standard of care by looking closely at this data.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

- Excerpts from the speech "Citizenship In A Republic" by Theodore Roosevelt

Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Letter Of Advice To A Younger Person

Erudition without bullshit, intellect without cowardice, courage without imprudence, mathematics without nerdiness, scholarship without academia, intelligence without shrewdness, religiosity without intolerance, elegance without softness, sociality without dependence, enjoyment without addiction, and, above all, nothing without skin in the game.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

What I've Been Reading

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton. Botton delivers  big time in this witty and funny philosophical musing on our mundane livelihood. Wish he wrote this when I was in my teens; I would have probably better prepared to embark on this working world alone.

"It isn't normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement."
   - Abraham Maslow

On Biscuit Manufacture: 
We should be wary of restricting the idea of meaningful work too tightly, of focusing only on the doctors, the nuns of Kolkata or the Old Masters. There can be less exalted ways to contribute to the furtherance of the collective good and it seems that making a perfectly formed stripey chocolate circle which helps to fill an impatient stomach in the long morning hours between nine o'clock and the noon may deserve its own secure, if microscopic, place in the pantheons of innovations designed to alleviate the burden of human existence.

On Career Counseling:
Most of us stand poised at the edge of brilliance, haunted by the knowledge of our proximity, yet still demonstrably on the wrong side of the line, our dealings with reality undermined by a range of minor yet critical psychological flaws (a little too much optimism, an unprocessed rebelliousness, a fatal impatience or sentimentality). We are like an exquisite high-speed aircraft which for lack of tiny part is left stranded beside the runway, rendered slower than a tractor or a bicycle.

On Rocket Scientist:
Yet I felt the awkwardness of having to look up to rocket engineers and technicians as our ancestors might once have venerated their gods. These specialists were unlikely and troubling objects of admiration compared with the night sky and the mountains. The pre-scientific age, whatever its deficiencies, had at least offered its members the peace of mind that follows from knowing all man-made achievements to be nothing next to grandeur of the universe. We, more blessed in our gadgetry but less humble in our outlook, have been left to wrestle with feelings of envy, anxiety and arrogance that follow from having no more compelling repository of veneration than our brilliant, precise, blinkered and morally troubling fellow human beings.

On Painting:
To convey the particularity of artistic work, he quotes Hegel's definition of painting and music as genres dedicated to the 'sensuous presentation of ideas'. We require such 'sensuous' arts, Hegel suggested, because many important truth will impress themselves upon our consciousness only if they have been moulded from sensory, emotive material. We may, for example, need a song to alert us in a visceral way to the importance of forgiving others, a notion to which we might previously assented purely in a rote and stagnant way after reading of it in a political tract - just as it may only be in front of a successful painting of an oak tree that we are in any position to feel, as opposed dutifully to accept, the significance of the natural world.

On Transmission Engineering:
He had devoted a decade and some of his colleagues later surmised, some of his sanity, to fabricating a tube consisting of two heavy weights separated by a spring, which resonated at a different frequency from the conductor and thereby ensured the stability of the pylon as a whole. There seemed to be few man-made innovations whose creation had not exacted a disproportionate degree of sacrifice and ingenuity.

On Accountancy:
I feel my boredom turn to pity for someone who one might otherwise imagine had precious little to be pitied for. 
Office civilisation could not be feasible without the hard take-offs and landings effected by coffee and alcohol.

On Entrepreneurship:
These inventors are elevating the formulation of entrepreneurial ideas to the status of a visionary activity. Though forced to justify their efforts in the pragmatic language of venture capital, they were at heart utopian thinkers intent on transforming the world for better, one deodorant-dispensing machine at a time.
Nevertheless, these entrepreneurs could be at least be celebrated fir embodying a honorably stubborn side of human nature, one which other areas causes us to get married without duress and to behave as if death might be an avoidable condition. They were proof of the extent of which we ultimately prefer excitement and disaster to boredom and safety. 

"To see ourselves as the centre of the universe and the present time as the summit of history, to view our upcoming meetings as being of overwhelming significance, to neglect the lessons of cemeteries, to read only sparingly, to feel the pressure of deadlines, to snap at colleagues, to make our way through conference, to behave heedlessly and greedily and then to combust in battle - maybe all of this, in the end, is working wisdom. It is paying death to much respect to prepare for it with sage prescriptions. Let death find us as we are building up our matchstick protests against its waves."

Quote of the Day

Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.

- Howard Aitken

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

How Managers Should Read Financial Statements

  • Don't be scared of math - it's simple
  • Don't get bogged down by jargon
  • Know that there are always estimates
  • Get involved in the numbers
- More Here by Joe Knight, coauthor of Financial Intelligence: A Manager's Guide to Knowing What the Numbers Really Mean

Quote of the Day

Perhaps what we actually remember is a set of memory fragments stitched onto a fabric of our own devising. If we sew cleverly enough, we have made ourselves a memorable story easy to recall.

- Carl Sagan

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Adam & Dog

Brilliant 15 minute short film by Minkyu Lee - A must watch !!

A Boy Raised By Monkeys

Mayanja was raised by monkeys until he was six years old. His story dates back to the early 1980s, during the civil unrest at that time. Except for his birthplace, known to be Luwero, nothing more is known about Mayanja's birthday, parents and early childhood.

The only available history starts when soldiers of the National Resistance Army found him in a forest in 1985, with a pack of monkeys. It is believed that his parents were killed in 1982 during the war and the boy was abandoned in the forest. He was believed to be about three years old when he was left alone and lived in the wild for another three years.

As the soldiers roamed about the bushes, they spotted what looked unmistakably like a human being among the monkeys. They had to disperse the monkeys in order to rescue the boy, but it was a struggle because the monkeys put up a fight.

One adult female monkey held Mayanja tightly to her bosom in an attempt to protect him. Angeyo says according to reports from those who rescued him, while in the wild, Mayanja survived on fruits, berries and roots and learnt all the mannerisms of the monkeys that adopted him.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

We live in a self-consciously plain-spoken political era. But Orwell’s advice, ironically, has not elevated the substance of debate; it has merely helped the political class to avoid the subject more skilfully. The art of spin is not (quite) supplanting truth with lies. It aspires to replace awkward complexities with catchy simplicity. Successful spin does not leave the effect of skilful persuasiveness; it creates the impression of unavoidable common sense. Hence the artifice becomes invisible – just as a truly charming person is considered nice rather than “charming”.

- Ed Smith

Monday, February 18, 2013

India's Rice Revolution Sans GM & Herbicide

What happened in Darveshpura has divided scientists and is exciting governments and development experts. Tests on the soil show it is particularly rich in silicon but the reason for the "super yields" is entirely down to a method of growing crops called System of Rice (or root) Intensification (SRI). It has dramatically increased yields with wheat, potatoes, sugar cane, yams, tomatoes, garlic, aubergine and many other crops and is being hailed as one of the most significant developments of the past 50 years for the world's 500 million small-scale farmers and the two billion people who depend on them.

Instead of planting three-week-old rice seedlings in clumps of three or four in waterlogged fields, as rice farmers around the world traditionally do, the Darveshpura farmers carefully nurture only half as many seeds, and then transplant the young plants into fields, one by one, when much younger. Additionally, they space them at 25cm intervals in a grid pattern, keep the soil much drier and carefully weed around the plants to allow air to their roots. The premise that "less is more" was taught by Rajiv Kumar, a young Bihar state government extension worker who had been trained in turn by Anil Verma of a small Indian NGO called Pran (Preservation and
Proliferation of Rural Resources and Nature), which has introduced the SRI method to hundreds of villages in the past three years.

While the "green revolution" that averted Indian famine in the 1970s relied on improved crop varieties, expensive pesticides and chemical fertilisers, SRI appears to offer a long-term, sustainable future for no extra cost. With more than one in seven of the global population going hungry and demand for rice expected to outstrip supply within 20 years, it appears to offer real hope. Even a 30% increase in the yields of the world's small farmers would go a long way to alleviating poverty.

- More Here

Introspection In The Attention Economy

Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's not a big deal. As long as the space is there. I was thinking more about the attention, the quality of attention and the constraints of it, to do two or three things at once. I look at the human side of it when I travel now. And everybody is paying attention to their phone. They are looking down at their smartphone. They are not engaging with the other people--which is fine, because most people don't chitchat with strangers on the Metro or on airplane flights. But people are immersed in their toy. And what they are not paying attention to besides the people around them, is, I suspect, the person inside them. Introspection seems to have taken a dive in the smartphone age. What do you think? 

Esther Dyson: Yes. I mean I'm not sure how much introspection was happening necessarily. It might have been just random daydreaming...

- Econtalk interview with Esther Dyson author of Rise of Attention Economy

Quote of the Day

The company I work for pays me well for the work I do. The benefits are fantastic and they are generous with vacation time. I really have no complaints about working for them. As much as this latest even stings, I understand the business rationale behind it. My group is shrinking, the other group is growing and it’s a logical move. What has been hard to deal with is how it has affected my ego. Even though it bothers me, my status at work does play a role in my self-worth. There is a large amount of unknown for me at this point. I don’t know if I will like the new position or be good at it. While my coworkers are not family, they are least familiar. What I have also learned is that I don’t like change very much.

- Mike Dwyer, Ego In The Workplace

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The End-Of-History Illusion

If we're to believe a recent study from psychologists at Harvard and Virginia universities, though, most of us are Londoners deep down. We labour under what they call the "end-of-history illusion", imagining that the person we are now is the final version, and that we won't change much in future. The researchers asked 19,000 people to complete personality assessments, either recalling how they'd changed in the last decade, or predicting how they'd change in the next. Then they compared the recollections of, say, 40-year-olds with the forecasts of 30-year-olds, and found that people predicted far less change than others remembered. (To make sure that the people looking back weren't misremembering, they compared those results to existing studies of how personalities change.) As one of the researchers told an interviewer, "I have this deep sense that… the core of me [is] not going to change from here on out." Selfhood's hill has been climbed.

It's easy to see how this might land us in trouble. When you assume your current preferences won't alter, you'll make bad decisions: embarking on a career or marriage, say, not with a view to its durability, but solely based on how it makes you feel now. Unmentioned in the hype surrounding the Harvard and Virginia research was the uncomfortable possibility to which this points: that the very idea of a fixed and stable self might be, somehow, erroneous. Different versions of that dizzying notion underpin the philosophy of Buddhism, and David Hume, and a thousand two-bit new age gurus. On this view,
"we" are endlessly changing patterns of molecules or thought processes; any sense of fixity or coherence is just a mental construct.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

Virtue is the attribute that brings admiration but cannot elicit envious resentment or jealousy.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Wisdom Of The Week

If the world is just, only the guilty are tortured. So believers in a just world are more likely to think that the people who are tortured are guilty. Perhaps especially so if they experience the torture closely and so feel a greater need to overcome cognitive dissonance. On the other hand, those farther away from the experience of torture may feel less need to justify it and they may be more likely to identify the tortured as victims. The theory of moral typecasting suggests that victims are also more likely to be seen as innocents (a la Jesus). 
The theory is tested in a lab setting by Gray and Wegner.

The most striking result is that in the close condition, the evincing of pain was associated with an increased judgment of guilt, consistent with torture causing cognitive dissonance which is relieved by a judgment of guilt (restoring the just world). But in the distance condition, the evincing of pain was associated with a decreased judgement of guilt, consistent with pain increasing the identification of the tortured as a victim and therefore innocent (a la moral typecasting).

Closeness in the experiment was reasonably literal but may also be interpreted in terms of identification with the torturer. If the church is doing the torturing then the especially religious may be more likely to think the tortured are guilty. If the state is doing the torturing then the especially patriotic (close to their country) may be more likely to think that the tortured/killed/jailed/abused are guilty. That part is fairly obvious but note the second less obvious implication–the worse the victim is treated the more the religious/patriotic will believe the victim is guilty.

The theory has interesting lessons for entrepreneurs of social change. Suppose you want to change a policy such as prisoner abuse (e.g. Abu Ghraib) or no-knock police raids or the war on drugs or even tax policy. Convincing people that the abuse is grave may increase their belief that the victim is guilty. Instead, you want to do one of two things. Among the patriotic you may want to sell the problem as a minor problem that We Can Fix – making them feel good about both the we and the fixing. Or, you may want to create distance – The problem is bad and THEY are the cause. People in the North, for example, became more concerned about slavery once the US became us and them.

I think research in moral reasoning is important because understanding why good people do evil things is more important than understanding why evil people do evil things.

- Torture in a Just World by Alex Tabarrok

Quote of the Day

It seems, in fact, that the more advanced a society is, the greater will be its interest in ruined things, for it will see in them a redemptively sobering reminder of the fragility of its own achievements. Ruins pose a direct challenge to our concern with power and rank, with bustle and fame. They puncture the inflated folly of our exhaustive and frenetic pursuit of wealth.

- Alain de Botton, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

Friday, February 15, 2013

Rationality + Consciousness = Free Will

Review of David Hodgson's last book Rationality + Consciousness = Free Will

Hodgson is concerned to show that his views about plausible reasoning and the role of consciousness in belief formation and action production are consistent with what science tells us about the world and in particular about the workings of the human brain. He acknowledges that there are laws of nature that constrain what can exist and what can happen. However, he rejects a deterministic picture according to which laws of nature together with past events and states of affairs precisely determine every outcome. In his opinion, although laws of nature constrain what can happen, they typically leave open a spectrum of possible outcomes, and which outcome results is not something that is always fixed in advance. He claims support for indeterminism of this sort from quantum mechanics. Of course, it is possible that indeterminism of the sort that may be operative at the quantum level does not occur in the human brain and that the production of beliefs and intentional actions is entirely deterministic. However, Hodgson argues that it has not been shown that the operations of the brain cannot be affected by quantum indeterminism. He concludes that current scientific theory is consistent with his picture of human freedom and responsibility.  According to Hodgson, his account of how plausible reasoning and consciousness contribute to decision-making supports:

"the view that human beings make decisions as to what to believe and what to do that are not pre-determined by prior conditions and laws of nature, yet are not random but are apposite responses to circumstances facing them; so that these decisions can be both indeterministic and rational"

Such decisions, he claims, are genuine exercises of free will and thus are things for which we can legitimately be held morally accountable. Moreover, he contends that free decisions do not require any special sort of agent-causation distinct from causation by events involving the agent, nor are they uncaused. The resulting view is thus a brand of event-causal libertarianism. According to event-causal libertarians, free actions are indeterministically caused by prior states and events and in particular by mental states and events such as beliefs, desires, intentions, and, in Hodgson's opinion, agents' conscious grasp of feature-rich gestalts.

Quote of the Day

It pains me to tell you that ... many who know you will find your death relieving. There will be a quiet celebration.

'A Letter to an Asshole' excerpts from the final chapter of Assholes: A Theory by Aaron James

Thursday, February 14, 2013

True Love - 24 Suprising Stories of Animal Affection

A perfect valentine day gift - True Love - 24 Suprising Stories of Animal Affection by Rachel Buchholz

  • Brother and sister bears: In Cooper Landing, Alaska, a fishing guide spotted brother and sister grizzly bears fishing in the river. The brother had an injured front paw from a gunshot wound (the same hunter had killed his mother) and couldn't catch salmon. Brother bear would charge, the fish would scatter, and he came up empty-pawed every time. The guide was worried about the cub until she saw his sister, who normally would have gone off on her own, stay by his side catching fish and dropping them at his feet. She stayed with her brother for four weeks to catch fish for him.
  • Lioness supermom: When a little lion cub fell halfway down a cliff, a group of lionesses didn't know what to do. At the cliff's bottom lurked hungry crocodiles, and one false move could send them and the baby tumbling down to become prey. Four lionesses try and give up: the cliff is too treacherous for them. But the lion's mother climbs down the sheer cliff face, scoops him up in her mouth, and crawls up the cliff side to safety.
  • Bear the bobcat and Robi the caracal: In Sherwood, Oregon, Bear the bobcat was blind, grumpy, and friendless. He didn't get along with any of the other captive cats at his sanctuary. His keepers were worried about him until Robi the caracal moved into the enclosure next door. The bobcat perked up and started rubbing against the fence of his new neighbor. When the two were introduced to each other, Bear affectionately head-butted Robi and they became best friends forever. Now Robi serves as Bear's "guide cat."
  • Jake and Jemima, ducks in love: In North Devon, England, Jake the Muscovy duck waddled for weeks to return to his sweetheart, Jemima. Their owner had given Jake to a friend eight miles away. But Jake overcame three snowstorms and animal threats to return to Jemima. Muscovy ducks can't fly very high-—only a few feet-—and he had to find his way around four-foot-high hedges and fences to get back to his girl. When he found Jemima again, his owner saw the two ducks cuddle up "like an old married couple.

Quote of the Day

When I shall be dead, the principles of which I am composed will still perform their part in the universe, and will be equally useful in the grand fabric, as when they composed this individual creature. The difference to the whole will be no greater betwixt my being in a chamber and in the open air. The one change is of more importance to me than the other; but not more so to the universe.

- David Hume, On Suicide

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Is The Controversial 'Nudge Unit' Finally Paying Off?

Known colloquially as The Nudge Unit, the team that was once viewed as a “nutty indulgence” at the heart of David Cameron’s government recently had its tenure renewed, after an 18-month probationary period. As a consequence, it will now be at the centre of initiatives on everything from job seeking to anti-smoking. And David Halpern, director of the nine-person unit, has been tasked with turning theory into government method. Loft insulation is a fascinating example,” he says. “If there is ‘friction cost’ in the way of doing something, it’ll never happen. We’ll put it off. So a lot of what we do is about making life easier for people.” The unit’s Whitehall office might be minuscule and recession-frugal — and Halpern himself has the bookish appearance of, as he puts it, “a humble policy wonk”.

But, so far at least, their results have been impressive. When the unit advised the HMRC to change the wording on income tax letters, for example, it resulted in an extra £200million being collected on time. Another experiment with the British Courts Service used personalised text messages to remind people to pay their fines on time. The result? Bailiff interventions were reduced by 150,000, saving around £30million.

Most importantly, they had to save money. Lots of it, in fact: Halpern had to recoup at least a tenfold return on the £520,000-per-year running cost of the team.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

Crude, old-style Keynesianism has thus returned with a vengeance. In truth, it never really left. Despite all the talk by government policymakers and central bankers and their macroeconomic advisers that they have painstakingly developed and learned to deploy sophisticated new tools of ‘stabilization policy’ in the last twenty-five years, their tool shed is, in actual practice, completely bare of all but the blunt and well-worn instruments of deficit spending and cheap money.

- F. A. Hayek, A Tiger by the Tail: The Keynesian Legacy of Inflation

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Resilient, Friendly People Are More Responsive To Placebo Treatment

Why should a person's agreeableness be related to their response to placebo treatments? "In the patient-doctor relationship, agreeableness appears likely to contribute to a strong therapeutic alliance," the researchers said, "as well as to frank, collaborative feedback through the therapeutic process. Thus, it appears that individuals high upon this trait are particularly well equipped to fully engage in therapeutic efforts, and in this sense, be a good responder to treatment, even if it is placebo." Meanwhile, the finding for angry hostility fits with past research showing that angry people tend to exhibit less indigenous opioid activity in their brains.

- More Here


“You can certainly make it wrap around a cylindrical object and that could be someone’s wrist,” Mr. Bocko said. “Right now, if I tried to make something that looked like a watch, that could be done using this flexible glass.”

But Mr. Bocko warns that it is still quite an engineering feat to create a foldable device. “The human body moves in unpredictable ways,” he said. “It’s one of the toughest mechanical challenges.”

“Apple’s certainly made a lot of hiring in that area,” said Sarah Rotman Epps, a Forrester analyst who specializes in wearable computing and smartphones. “Apple is already in the wearable space through its ecosystem partners that make accessories that connect to the iPhone,” she said, adding: “This makes Apple potentially the biggest player of the wearables market in a sort of invisible way.”

- More Here

Quote of the Day

I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.

- Joan Didion via My Start-Up Life: What a (Very) Young CEO Learned on His Journey Through Silicon Valley by Ben Casnocha

Monday, February 11, 2013

Religious Leaders Can Help Stop Wildlife Crime

Where do religion and conservation intersect?
Mapping great areas of remaining biodiversity around the world reveals that many are also sacred sites. In several of these areas, we know that religious belief has been one of the major factors for preserving them. For example, Sagamatha National Park in Nepal is sacred to the Sherpa people, and the Kaya Forest in Kenya is sacred to the Mijikenda. In both cases, this status has led to their preservation. But sadly, many sacred sites are threatened by illegal wildlife trade, deforestation, climate change, natural resource mining, pollution, and so on.

So how can religious leaders make a difference?

More than 80 percent of people in the world identify themselves as religious. Collectively, faith-related institutions make up one of the largest categories of financial investors and operate more than half of all schools globally. It is clear that religious leaders can have a strong influence. In sheer numbers, they are a major stakeholder for conservation.
I think there are two levels on which they can help environmental efforts. The first is by leading their communities to make ethical choices, such as becoming energy efficient or eschewing illegal wildlife products. The second is more nuanced—and that is to challenge the idea that a sustainable future is not attainable.

- Rest of the interview here with Dekila Chungyalpa is founder and director of the Sacred Earth program for WWF

Quote of the Day

No one can be good for long if goodness is not in demand.

- Bertold Brecht

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Can Hitchhiking Earth Microbes Thrive On Mars?

In a study published in December in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Schuerger, Nicholson and their colleagues reported that bacteria isolated from the Siberian permafrost thrived in Mars-like conditions. Those species, from the genus Carnobacterium, actually seemed to favor the low-pressure conditions. “When they grew at zero [degrees C] under CO2, seven millibar atmospheres, they seemed to grow better, at higher rates, than under CO2 at 1,000 millibars or under oxygen at 1,000 millibars,” Schuerger said.

But bacteria need not hail from extreme habitats to flourish under Mars-like conditions. Schuerger shared preliminary, unpublished research during the conference that indicates that low-pressure, or hypobaric, environments actually stimulated the growth of microbes harvested from an unusual source: human saliva. In petri dishes incubated at low temperature under carbon dioxide atmospheres, the salivary flora failed to grow at Earth-like pressures. “Yet these hypobarophiles have popped out” under Mars-like pressures of seven millibars, he said. The specific organisms that thrived in hypobaric conditions have not yet been identified, Schuerger noted in an email, but “the human oral cavity is not a place that one would expect to find microbes that yield such a strange response.”

- More Here

Quote of the Day

Heavy use of the word “hate” (“I hate Manchester United” et cetera) means football talk often sounds like fascist propaganda. Hysteria would be much reduced if fans and media shed the fairytale notion that a footballer must love whichever club he happens to play for. Footballers don’t think that way. Listen to their language: they call themselves “professionals” with “careers”. Football is a job – well-paid and often enjoyable, but employees don’t love their employers. A friend who supports Manchester United told me he believed United’s long-serving players Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs loved United. I asked him if he loved the bank where he worked. Obviously not, he said. Well, Scholes and Giggs don’t love United either. They just have happy employee-employer relationships.

Why I’ve fallen out of love with football

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Why Older Is Not Necessarily Wiser

There are reasons why older is not necessarily wiser. You’re never more open to new experience than when you’re twenty. After that, the need to make money, the fear of having no work, the demands of children, the sense that the world is moving in strange new directions, the appearance of unfamiliar forms of expression that inevitably seem less wonderful than the ones that changed your life when you were twenty cause the aperture to slowly narrow.

I can feel it happening in the way I absorb the news. In my twenties, I devoured the newspaper with the fearless zest of moral outrage. No atrocity story was too horrible for me to revel in every last detail—in some way, none of it was quite real. But, over time, indignation gave way to fear. Nothing makes the news more real than having children—it’s as if you lose a layer of skin, and even minor abrasions with the world get infected. On some days, reading the paper is almost unbearable. The Newtown killings hit me in a deeper place than all the wars and genocides of the past few decades. There were certain articles I couldn’t finish, even though I was unable to think of anything else.

This is selfishness—parents are at once the least and most selfish people on earth—and it feels like another way of pulling back from the world. I have less time and attention than I used to for faraway stories that don’t touch me and my family. (I once despised people who admitted that.) I am a less curious, less capable consumer of news than I was ten or twenty years ago, when the stakes were lower.

One of the biggest problems with getting older, other than the place where it’s headed, is a massive projection about the state of the world: by fifty, the obvious fact of your own decline is easily mistaken for an intimation of the world’s. And, since there’s never a shortage of evidence that things are, indeed, worse than they used to be, it’s incredibly satisfying to indulge the idea, and easy to confuse it with a veteran’s seasoned judgment. That’s the impulse you have to resist if you want to retain your credibility while you lose other features.

- More Here

Wisdom Of The Week

But some children actually do better under competitive, stressful circumstances. Why can Jacob thrive under pressure, while it undoes Noah? And how should that difference inform the way we think about high-stakes testing? An emerging field of research — and a pioneering study from Taiwan — has begun to offer some clues. Like any kind of human behavior, our response to competitive pressure is derived from a complex set of factors — how we were raised, our skills and experience, the hormones that we marinated in as fetuses. There is also a genetic component: One particular gene, referred to as the COMT gene, could to a large degree explain why one child is more prone to be a worrier, while another may be unflappable, or in the memorable phrasing of David Goldman, a geneticist at the National Institutes of Health, more of a warrior.

Understanding their propensity to become stressed and how to deal with it can help children compete. Stress turns out to be far more complicated than we’ve assumed, and far more under our control than we imagine. Unlike long-term stress, short-term stress can actually help people perform, and viewing it that way changes its effect. Even for those genetically predisposed to anxiety, the antidote isn’t necessarily less competition — it’s more competition. It just needs to be the right kind. 

Here’s the thing: There are two variants of the gene. One variant builds enzymes that slowly remove dopamine. The other variant builds enzymes that rapidly clear dopamine. We all carry the genes for one or the other, or a combination of the two.

The Taiwan study was the first to look at the COMT gene in a high-stakes, real-life setting. Would the I.Q. advantage hold up, or would the stress undermine performance?

It was the latter. The Taiwanese students with the slow-acting enzymes sank on the national exam. On average, they scored 8 percent lower than those with the fast-acting enzymes. It was as if some of the A students and B students traded places at test time.

“I am not against pressure. Actually, pressure is good [for] someone,” Chang commented. “But those who are more vulnerable to stress will be more disadvantaged.”

As of 2014, Taiwan will no longer require all students to take the Basic Competency Test, as the country moves to 12-year compulsory education. The system will no longer be built to weed out children, but to keep them all in school. But academically advanced students will still take some kind of entrance exam. And those elite students will still feel the pressure, which, it bears repeating, will hurt some but help others.

“The people who perform best in normal conditions may not be the same people who perform best under stress,” Diamond says. People born with the fast-acting enzymes “actually need the stress to perform their best.” To them, the everyday is underwhelming; it doesn’t excite them enough to stimulate the sharpness of mind of which they are capable. They benefit from that surge in dopamine — it raises the level up to optimal. They are like Superman emerging from the phone booth in times of crisis; their abilities to concentrate and solve problems go up.

- Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart?

Quote of the Day

Boy would I love for someone to invent a way to plow streets without plowing in my driveway right after I've dug it out.

- Atul Gawande

Friday, February 8, 2013

Amazon Coins - A Virtual Currency

Amazon’s strategy is more like China’s or an aggressive program of quantitative easing. By printing money and putting it in the hands of Kindle Fire owners, Amazon will increase the demand for Kindle Fire content. More importantly, because Kindle Fire developers will expect higher future demand, they’ll have an incentive to invest in creating things for people to buy. It’s a developer subsidy, but with several advantages over Microsoft’s approach. For starters, since the subsidy directly passes through customers’ hands rather than being hidden from them, it builds goodwill and brand loyalty. More importantly, it avoids the problems with Microsoft’s central planning. The basis of competition is still who can make the apps people want to buy not who can talk executives into writing a subsidy check.

Crucially, this means the opportunity is there for independent developers and new startups. All we know is that by printing coins and showering them on the user base, Amazon will increase the volume of sales. That spurs effort by developers across the board, which should make the broader ecosystem more attractive to customers.

And where does the money come from? Let’s go back to those bonds. Amazon’s three-, five-, and 10-year bonds pay interest rates of 0.65, 1.2, and 2.5 percent respectively. That’s nothing. In fact, in inflation-adjusted terms, the three- and five-year bonds literally pay less than nothing. Apple is earning huge profits, then stacking the money up in a vault where its short-term securities earn less than inflation in today’s low-interest environment. Amazon, by contrast, is taking advantage of those low rates to skate by on razor-thin margins and even take on debt to strengthen its ecosystem. It’s a great strategy that other companies—and for that matter national governments—could learn a lot from.

- More Here

Dognition - Test Your Dog's Brain Power For Science

Brian Hare and his wife and collaborator Vanessa Woods have written a book on dog cognition, The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think and Hare talks about his book and Dognition project here:

Is your dog a genius or a dolt? Probably both, according to biological anthropologist Brian Hare of Duke University. 
Dogs are astoundingly good at reading our gestures and learning words, but they totally fail at physics, Hare says. He’s not talking string theory. Most dogs are at a loss, for example, when their leash gets wound around a tree. Today Hare is launching a new company called Dognition that will, for a fee, analyze the cognitive strengths and weaknesses of your own beloved pooch.

Wired: What do dogs do that’s smart?
Hare: Science has ignored dogs and the book highlights why that’s changing. We’ve discovered what makes them remarkable, and it’s very similar to what develops in kids that makes them remarkable. It’s that kids start using gestures and learning words in a way that other species don’t. The fact that dogs share this remarkable ability that we think is so important to being human is what got people (researchers) really fascinated.

Wired: In what ways are they dumb?
Hare: They’re incredibly vapid when it comes to understanding the physical world, things like understanding that if you’re connected to somebody with a leash you can’t go on the other side of the lamppost. There’s good evidence that that really is a cognitive constraint. They just don’t get it.

Wired: Why do you think studying dogs can tell us something about our own evolution?
Hare: Cognition doesn’t fossilize. We have this wonderful fossil assemblage of the hominid lineage, but we don’t have any way to test the behavior of baby Neanderthals and Homo erectus, which is what I’d really love to do. Within the constraints of what their brains are capable of, dogs have converged with us in terms of their social skills. We’re trying to make the argument that if selection against aggression could lead to more social skills in dogs, well the same thing could have happened in our species.

Quote of the Day

The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. It's proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or "accessing" what we now call "information" - which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first.

- Wendell Berry

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Ten Virtues For The Modern Age

  • Resilience. Keeping going even when things are looking dark; accepting that reversals are normal; remembering that human nature is, in the end, tough. Not frightening others with your fears.
  • Empathy. The capacity to connect imaginatively with the sufferings and unique experiences of another person. The courage to become someone else and look back at yourself with honesty.
  • Patience. We lose our temper because we believe that things should be perfect. We've grown so good in some areas (putting men on the moon etc.), we're ever less able to deal with things that still insist on going wrong; like traffic, government, other people... We should grow calmer and more forgiving by getting more realistic about how things actually tend to go.
  • Sacrifice. We’re hardwired to seek our own advantage but also have a miraculous ability, very occasionally, to forego our own satisfactions in the name of someone or something else. We won't ever manage to raise a family, love someone else or save the planet if we don't keep up with the art of sacrifice. 
  • Politeness. Politeness has a bad name. We often assume it's about being 'fake' (which is meant to be bad) as opposed to 'really ourselves' (which is meant to be good). However, given what we're really like deep down, we should spare others too much exposure to our deeper selves. We need to learn manners, which aren’t evil - they are the necessary internal rules of civilisation. Politeness is very linked to tolerance, the capacity to live alongside people whom one will never agree with, but at the same time, can’t avoid.
  • Humour. Seeing the funny sides of situations and of oneself doesn't sound very serious, but it is integral to wisdom, because it's a sign that one is able to put a benevolent finger on the gap between what we want to happen and what life can actually provide; what we dream of being and what we actually are, what we hope other people will be like and what they are actually like. Like anger, humour springs from disappointment, but it's disappointment optimally channelled. It's one of the best things we can do with our sadness.
  • Self-awareness. To know oneself is to try not to blame others for one's troubles and moods; to have a sense of what's going on inside oneself, and what actually belongs to the world.
  • Forgiveness. Forgiveness means a long memory of all the times when we wouldn't have got through life without someone cutting us some slack. It's recognising that living with others isn't possible without excusing errors.
  • Hope. The way the world is now is only a pale shadow of what it could one day be. We're still only at the beginning of history. As you get older, despair becomes far easier, almost reflex (whereas in adolescence, it was still cool and adventurous). Pessimism isn't necessarily deep, nor optimism shallow.
  • Confidence. The greatest projects and schemes die for no grander reasons than that we don't dare. Confidence isn't arrogance, it's based on a constant awareness of how short life is and how little we ultimately lose from risking everything.
- Alain de Botton

Quote of the Day

As well as being impossibly arrogant, coming in the disguise of modesty, humility, simplicity. “Ah, I’m just a humble person doing God’s work.” No, excuse me, you must be either humble or doing God’s work. You can’t know what God’s work would be, don’t try your modesty on me. And once one’s made that elimination, then everything else becomes more or less simple. My problem only begins there.

- Hitchens

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Dog With Human Face

Now for adoption!

What Pigeons Taught Darwin About Evolution & What They Teach Us 150 Years Later

“The diversity of the breeds is something astonishing,” he wrote a few years later in “On the Origin of Species” — a work greatly informed by his experiments with the birds.

Pigeon breeding, Darwin argued, was an analogy for what happened in the wild. Nature played the part of the fancier, selecting which individuals would be able to reproduce. Natural selection might work more slowly than human breeders, but it had far more time to produce the diversity of life around us.

Yet to later generations of biologists, pigeons were of little more interest than they are to, say, New Yorkers. Attention shifted to other species, like fruit flies and E. coli.

Now Michael D. Shapiro, a biologist at the University of Utah, is returning pigeons to the spotlight.

In an article published online last week by the journal Science, an international team of scientists led by Dr. Shapiro reports that it has delved into a source of information Darwin didn’t even know about: the pigeon genome. So far, they have sequenced the DNA of 40 breeds, seeking to pinpoint the mutations that produced their different forms.

The scientists are following Darwin’s example by using the birds to find clues to the way evolution works in general. They are particularly interested in the mutations that produce radically new kinds of anatomy.

- More Here from Carl Zimmer

Quote of the Day

It is because a mirror has no commitment to any image that it can clearly and accurately reflect any image before it. The mind of a warrior is like a mirror in that it has no commitment to any outcome and is free to let form and purpose result on the spot, according to the situation.

- Yagyū Munenori, The Life-Giving Sword

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Quote of the Day

To feel affection for people, even when they err, is good for us.  You can do it if you recognize that they are human, too.  They act out of ignorance, or against their will.  Soon enough, you’ll both be dead.  And above all, they haven’t really hurt you.  So treat them decently.

- Marcus Aurelius,  Meditations

Monday, February 4, 2013

Wonders of Life by Brian Cox

Excerpts of new book based on hit BBC series Wonders of Life by Brian Cox.

I confess that when we began thinking about Wonders of Life, my first thought was "Why me?" as I gave up biology as an academic subject in 1984. But then I looked in the mirror and I thought: "Yeah. That's amaaazin." Evolution, DNA and butterflies. They're amaaazin, too. I mean, look at this blade of grass. It's basically made of the same shit as you and me. That's like, mind-blowin. More so for me than for you. I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.

Now take a look at this picture. Do you notice anything unusual about it? Yes, that's right. I'm not in it. It's just a boring shot of cyanobacteria under the microscope. So let's move on. Air. Weird how something so light can be so heavy to explain. Like when did it first support life? I mean, what is life anyway? Not even Schrödinger knew for sure. So here I am on the Taal volcano in the Philippines to purr on about the first law of thermodynamics. Are you getting sweaty? I know I am. Try hard and you can measure your desire.

Now let's think about photosynthesis and entropy. On second thoughts, let's not. Let's just look at some more amaaazin pictures of animals and birds and fish and insects and all sorts. Some of them are really, really big and some of them are really, really small and the totally amaaazin thing is that it's not a coincidence. We're all one big family made out of the same molecular compounds. Though some of us are arranged rather more photogenically. And the most amaaazin thing of all is that we are all still evolving, so it's possible that there will one day be a scientist even lovelier than me.

There's so much left to say about carbon and quasars and mitochondria, but what really does my head in is that there are over half a trillion galaxies in the observable universe; the idea that there are no other planets out there with webs of life at least as complex as our own seems to me an absurd proposition. Which means that somewhere in a parallel space-time continuum, there is another drop-dead gorgeous rock legend standing on a Pacific atoll as David Attenborough whispers from on high: "Verily it is written that you are the chosen one."

A Day In India

- via Kottke

Quote of the Day

Pigeons form a far richer picture of the world than a person can manage, through three senses unavailable to humans: an instinctive ability to navigate by the sun, an ability to detect magnetic fields that provides them with an inbuilt compass, and an ability to hear infrasound.

- How Pigeons Find Their Way Home?

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Why Why Antifragile Companies Will Become the New 1%

As the world becomes more transparent and connected, the truth about how companies treat their various stakeholders (whether it be their employees, customers, business partners, communities, or the environment) will be exposed. This will create a high level of fragility for companies who derive their competitive advantage through exploiting their stakeholders as for the first time ever, the exploited have a voice and are empowered to join together and fight back. This will result in the fragile companies having a much higher risk profile and lower than anticipated future growth profile which from a discounted cash flow perspective, will lead to a double negative multiplier effect, leading to accelerated erosion in value. On the positive side, this will create a high level of antifragility for companies with heart and soul that have built up strong relationships and have established a high level of trust with their stakeholders. As Taleb states “word of mouth is a potent naturalistic filter. Actually, the only filter.” These antifragile companies will have a much lower than assumed risk profile and higher than anticipated further growth profile which from a discounted cash flow perspective, will lead to a double positive multiplier effect, leading to accelerated creation in value.

I am still baffled about how little attention the investment community gives to soft qualitative factors such as a company’s culture, core values, and its relationships with its stakeholders. I just returned from a three-day Institutional Investor Conference sponsored by a major brokerage firm. After a three-year hiatus from the Street, it was another wake-up call to me about how it is just all about the hard cold numbers – as of the twenty-five plus company presentations I sat through, only two of the CEOs actually made mention of their values and their company culture. Taleb seems to be critical of this as well as he states “A corporation does not have natural ethics; it just obeys the balance sheet. The problem is that its sole mission is the satisfaction of some metric imposed by security analysts…”

When you think about it, our newly launched Customer Value Index 200 is based on Taleb’s concept of antifragility. Whereas Social Responsible Investing is focused on reducing exposure to companies that create negative externalities, thereby creating a less fragile or resilient portfolio, our strategy is to increase exposure to companies that generate positive externalities. By screening for companies with superior competitive strength that are transparent, authentic, and engaging in terms of their core values, culture, and community, we have tried to identify those antifragile companies that will thrive and prosper as the Social Revolution shakes up the soil of the corporate root system. It’s exciting as since we launched the Customer Value Index 200 on November 15th, it is up 13.0% versus 11.1% for the S&P 500, an outperformance of 290 basis points, the majority due to stock selection. However, it is important to keep in mind that we are looking for our social capital investment thesis to play out over the next decade as we see a widening gap between the fragile and antifragile. As Taleb states “few realize that we are moving into the far more uneven distribution of 99/1 across many things that used to be 80/20: 99 percent of Internet traffic is attributable to less than 1 percent of sites, 99 percent of book sales come from less than 1 percent of authors…Almost everything contemporary has winner-take-all effects….”

- More Here and treat yourself by reading Taleb's new book Antifragility:Things That Gain From Disorder