Monday, June 30, 2014

Did Mahabharata Begin With a Dog?

Thats correct. Mahabaratha started with a dog's story, ended with a dog. Also the intresting point is one of the greatest turning point in Mahabaratha in middle was also due to a dog (Ekalavya's episode).

First I will describe the story and later go into the deeper meaning of what it means.

Ugarshavasuvu, goes to niamishaaranya, where sounkaadi maharshi and others were performing dheerga satra yaga (12 years). Ugrashravasuvu is a sishya of vedavyasa (the current vysa's name is krishna dvaipayana). Vedavyasa divided vedas into 4 parts, rig, yajur, sama and atharva. after which he wrote 18 maha puranas. He wrote Mahabaratha after completing puranas. Mahabaratha is also called panchama veda (5th veda).

Sounakaadi maharshi and other ask Ugarshavasuvu where he is coming from then he tells them that he visited Samanthaka panchakam and Janamejaya's yagashala. Janemejaya is the son of parikshith, grandson of Abhimanyu and great grandson of Pandavas.

So  Ugarshavasuvu starts describing about his visit to Janemejaya's yagashala. This is where Mahabharata starts. Janemejaya was performing a yaga for the welfare of his country/people. outside the yagashala a small dog ( you can call it a pup) out of curiosity was looking at what is going on. This pup is the son of sarama ( a deva shuni or a celestial female dog). If a dog enters the yagashala then devatas dont accept the offerings made in the yaga. So Janamejaya's three brothers Shrutasena, Ugrasena, Bhimasena closind in on the pup didnt let it escape and trashed it inflicting lot of pain.

So this poor pup goes and cries and tells its mother that I didnt go inside and didnt do any harm to anyone near the yagashala, but these rajakumaras beat me so much not even letting me escape.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

There are three types of biomimicry - one is copying form and shape, another is copying a process, like photosynthesis in a leaf, and the third is mimicking at an ecosystem's level, like building a nature-inspired city.

- Janine Benyus, Biomimicry

Sunday, June 29, 2014

On Fermi's Paradox

  • Possibility 1) Super-intelligent life could very well have already visited Earth, but before we were here. In the scheme of things, sentient humans have only been around for about 50,000 years, a little blip of time. If contact happened before then, it might have made some ducks flip out and run into the water and that’s it. Further, recorded history only goes back 5,500 years—a group of ancient hunter-gatherer tribes may have experienced some crazy alien shit, but they had no good way to tell anyone in the future about it.
  • Possibility 2) The galaxy has been colonized, but we just live in some desolate rural area of the galaxy. The Americas may have been colonized by Europeans long before anyone in a small Inuit tribe in far northern Canada realized it had happened. There could be an urbanization component to the interstellar dwellings of higher species, in which all the neighboring solar systems in a certain area are colonized and in communication, and it would be impractical and purposeless for anyone to deal with coming all the way out to the random part of the spiral where we live.
  • Possibility 3) The entire concept of physical colonization is a hilariously backward concept to a more advanced species. Remember the picture of the Type II Civilization above with the sphere around their star? With all that energy, they might have created a perfect environment for themselves that satisfies their every need. They might have crazy-advanced ways of reducing their need for resources and zero interest in leaving their happy utopia to explore the cold, empty, undeveloped universe. An even more advanced civilization might view the entire physical world as a horribly primitive place, having long ago conquered their own biology and uploaded their brains to a virtual reality, eternal-life paradise. Living in the physical world of biology, mortality, wants, and needs might seem to them the way we view primitive ocean species living in the frigid, dark sea. FYI, thinking about another life form having bested mortality makes me incredibly jealous and upset.
  • Possibility 4) There are scary predator civilizations out there, and most intelligent life knows better than to broadcast any outgoing signals and advertise their location. This is an unpleasant concept and would help explain the lack of any signals being received by the SETI satellites. It also means that we might be the super naive newbies who are being unbelievably stupid and risky by ever broadcasting outward signals. There’s a debate going on currently about whether we should engage in METI (Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence—the reverse of SETI) or not, and most people say we should not. Stephen Hawking warns, “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.” Even Carl Sagan (a general believer that any civilization advanced enough for interstellar travel would be altruistic, not hostile) called the practice of METI “deeply unwise and immature,” and recommended that “the newest children in a strange and uncertain cosmos should listen quietly for a long time, patiently learning about the universe and comparing notes, before shouting into an unknown jungle that we do not understand.” Scary.
  • Possibility 5) There’s only one instance of higher-intelligent life—a “superpredator” civilization (like humans are here on Earth)—who is far more advanced than everyone else and keeps it that way by exterminating any intelligent civilization once they get past a certain level. This would suck. The way it might work is that it’s an inefficient use of resources to exterminate all emerging intelligences, maybe because most die out on their own. But past a certain point, the super beings make their move—because to them, an emerging intelligent species becomes like a virus as it starts to grow and spread. This theory suggests that whoever was the first in the galaxy to reach intelligence won, and now no one else has a chance. This would explain the lack of activity out there because it would keep the number of super-intelligent civilizations to just one.
  • Possibility 6) There’s plenty of activity and noise out there, but our technology is too primitive and we’re listening for the wrong things. Like walking into a modern-day office building, turning on a walkie-talkie, and when you hear no activity (which of course you wouldn’t hear because everyone’s texting, not using walkie-talkies), determining that the building must be empty. Or maybe, as Carl Sagan has pointed out, it could be that our minds work exponentially faster or slower than another form of intelligence out there—e.g. it takes them 12 years to say “Hello,” and when we hear that communication, it just sounds like white noise to us.

    - More Here (via kotte - very very interesting)

Quote of the Day


TOLERATE OTHERS BEEING WRONG ON THE INTERNET ( A rationality skill that has been saving me lots of time and frustration since I learned it a few months ago)

More specific, we need a to use a set of filters before posting:
( 1 ) Do I think the other Person has decent epistemic/reasoning standarts?
( 2 ) Do I expect my post to result in a fruitful debate that will yield new insights?
( 3 ) Is there a chance that either me or the other guy will change his opinion in the course of the debate?

Arguing with idiots has the game-theoretic structure of a . Whoever gets in the last argument wins. Add to this the asymmetry that someone with low epistemic standarts can make up some nonesense argument in five minutes, while it takes you an hour to prove that it is nonsense. At which point the other guy will make up some new nonsense.

- Medivh

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Maximus & Me

Wisdom Of The Week

At the Dog meat festivalDog Peddlers Abuse Dogs to Get Higher Price from Dog Lovers - via Tyler

For those who still think countries should emulate Chinese "growth", for those idiots who order cheap stuff directly from China, for those live to keep up with the Joneses and for all others who use phrases like "What is the big deal?", "They are just dogs", "Who cares, I have other things to worry about" - I say, go fuck yourself.

I feel sorry for those Chinese who have to watch their fellow citizens commit these atrocities but rescuing these dogs by buying them will worsen the atrocities (basic demand and supply). My question is what is the omnipotent communist government doing anything to stop this? I guess, its plain stupid to expect communists to behave democratic (Are your listening Tom Friedman?).

But the land of Confucius will change. There are millions of Chinese waiting patiently for the right moment to strike. Never underestimate the power of the delusional ape inside us to make those delusions a reality.

To be a good teacher Confucius believed he had to be a good student continually. Thus one of his most important methods of teaching was to be an attentive listener in order to learn from his students how to teach them. "To listen silently, to learn untiringly, and to teach others without being wearied-that is just natural with me."

Patience and perseverance were qualities which apparently enabled Confucius to stay with his students until they finally saw the light. This continual striving to better himself and others must have given the master an enduring energy. If he was so vigilant and disciplined with himself, he must have been an ever-present model for his students, even if he did not expect as much from them as he required from himself.

Confucius was always anxious to correct ideas and beliefs which could be improved. Here he used a rhetorical question to make his point. Someone had asked him about the principle of repaying injury with virtue. He responded, "In that case how will you repay virtue? Rather, repay injury with justice, and repay virtue with virtue." Confucius was practical and discriminating in his ethics so that his precepts could be easily followed and would prove successful. The following incident shows how seriously some of the students took the master's precepts. Zizhang asked how to get along with people, the fundamental humanistic question. Confucius said,

Be sincere and true to your word,
serious and careful in your actions;
and you will get along even among barbarians.
But if you are not sincere and untrustworthy in your speech,
frivolous and careless in your actions,
how will you get along even among your own neighbors?
When standing, see these principles in front of you;
in your carriage see them on the yoke.
Then you may be sure to get along.

So Zizhang inscribed these words upon his sash. Apparently the students often memorized the master's precepts, and Confucius apparently encouraged this practice. This is probably how these conversations were passed down until they were recorded in The Analects.

Often an enterprising student would ask follow-up questions in order to draw forth more information from his teacher. Zilu asked about the truly better person, and Confucius said, "One cultivates oneself carefully." Zilu asked if that was all, and Confucius said, "One cultivates oneself so as to help other people." Zilu asked again if that was all, and Confucius said, "One cultivates oneself so as to help all the people. Even Yao and Shun found that difficult." Confucius began with the primary step-improve yourself. If a person could do that, then one could help others. If one could help some, then one could strive to help all humanity. Thus he showed the successive stages. On another occasion Zilu asked about government, and Confucius said, "Lead by example; work hard for them." Again Zilu asked for further instruction, and Confucius said, "Untiringly."

Quote of the Day

Friday, June 27, 2014

Building An Internet Of Dogs For Emergency Rescues

The Internet of Dogs is just one part of a larger emergency response system, explains Justyna Zander, the SmartAmerica team lead. Together with computer scientists from a range of academic institutions and industries, they developed a process by which drones, robots, dogs, and human first responders could communicate with one another automatically.

The dogs' stress levels will be read online, too. Simba and Diesel, the two Labrador retrievers that showed off the technology at the SmartAmerica exposition earlier this month, wore heart rate variability monitors, a network of vibrating nodes that could be controlled by humans, and sensors that tracked their movements. The two researchers developing the team's dog communication platform say that one day, some of these measurements will become so fine-tuned that they could be translated into a kind of language.

"Once we understand what the dog is feeling and what the dog is doing remotely, you can just make the computer talk to you about the dog's state, and then you can make the computer talk to you as if it's the dog itself," explains Dr. Alper Bozkurt, an assistant professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at North Carolina State University. "If the dog is stressed, it's not a good time to train it. It could say, 'I'm stressed, I don't want to do it now.'"

So far, Bozkurt and his colleagues have only developed an Internet of electrode-saddled cockroaches. A true Internet of dogs, he says, is the next big leap for mankind. The applications could range from quantified pets to service dogs that also act as responsive cyborgs.

"The dogs are our next scale in terms of organisms. Humans and dogs communicated with each other for a long time, built this unbelievable partnership for 300,000 years based on communication," Bozkurt says. "You read the body language of the dog, and you try to let dog understand your body language through training. What we tried to do was take this burden off of [dog handlers'] shoulders and put it on a computer."

- More Here

How Stress Can Clog Your Arteries

The new finding is “surprising,” says physician and atherosclerosis researcher Alan Tall of Columbia University, who was not involved in the new study. “The idea has been out there that chronic psychosocial stress is associated with increased cardiovascular disease in humans, but what’s been lacking is a mechanism,” he notes.

Epidemiological studies have shown that people who face many stressors—from those who survive natural disasters to those who work long hours—are more likely to develop atherosclerosis, the accumulation of fatty plaques inside blood vessels. In addition to fats and cholesterols, the plaques contain monocytes and neutrophils, immune cells that cause inflammation in the walls of blood vessels. And when the plaques break loose from the walls where they’re lodged, they can cause more extreme blockages elsewhere—leading to a stroke or heart attack.

- More Here and Robert Sapolsky's funny and witty book Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, Third Edition is a must read.

Using Abstract Language Signals Power

Many people hope to achieve power, that is, control over other people. One way to gain power is through appearances: People who exhibit behavioral signals of power are often treated in a way that allows them to actually achieve such power (Ridgeway, Berger, & Smith, 1985; Smith & Galinsky, 2010). In the current paper we examine power signals within interpersonal communication, exploring whether use of concrete versus abstract language is seen as a signal of power. Since power tends to activate abstraction (e.g., Smith & Trope, 2006), perceivers may expect higher-power individuals to speak more abstractly and therefore will infer that speakers who use more abstract language have a higher degree of power. Across a variety of contexts and conversational subjects in four separate experiments, participants perceived respondents who used more abstract language as being more powerful than respondents who used more concrete language.

- Full paper here

Quote of the Day

You know, the most amazing thing happened to me tonight. I was coming here, on the way to the lecture, and I came in through the parking lot. And you won’t believe what happened. I saw a car with the license plate ARW 357. Can you imagine? Of all the millions of license plates in the state, what was the chance that I would see that particular one tonight? Amazing!

- Richard Feynman

Thursday, June 26, 2014

9 Touching Epitaphs Ancient Greeks And Romans Wrote For Their Deceased Dogs

1. “I am in tears, while carrying you to your last resting place as much as I rejoiced when bringing you home in my own hands fifteen years ago.” (Source)
Ancients weren’t ashamed to openly weep for their departed dogs, as seen in this saddened pet-owner’s final farewell to his companion.

2. “Thou who passest on this path, If haply thou dost mark this monument, Laugh not, I pray thee, though it is a dog's grave. Tears fell for me, and the dust was heaped above me By a master's hand.”

In an age before pet cemeteries, Greek and Romans would bury their pets along the roadside in marked graves like this one -- a mournful gesture they did not take lightly.

3. “My eyes were wet with tears, our little dog, when I bore thee (to the grave)… So, Patricus, never again shall thou give me a thousand kisses. Never canst thou be contentedly in my lap. In sadness have I buried thee, and thou deservist. In a resting place of marble, I have put thee for all time by the side of my shade. In thy qualities, sagacious thou wert like a human being. Ah, me! What a loved companion have we lost!”

This text was found on the tombstone of Patricus, an Italian dog, written by his grieving owner. Note that, even in this era, pets were being likened to humans.

4. “To Helena, foster child, soul without comparison and deserving of praise.”

Domestic canines, particularly lap-dogs, were often referred to as “fosters”, further suggesting that even by then adopted pets were considered members of the family.

5. “This is the tomb of the dog, Stephanos, who perished, Whom Rhodope shed tears for and buried like a human. I am the dog Stephanos, and Rhodope set up a tomb for me.”

Here, a dog named Stephanos is mourned by his master, Rhodope, who wanted to make sure that all who read this epitaph know how much the animal meant to her.

6. “[Myia] never barked without reason, but now he is silent.”

This dog’s owner offers simple yet powerful words for his pet, addressing him as one might an equal.

7. “Here the stone says it holds the white dog from Melita, the most faithful guardian of Eumelus; Bull they called him while he was yet alive; but now his voice is prisoned in the silent pathways of night.”

For Eumelus, his deceased pet Melita was clearly more than just an animal, but rather a creature with a soul that’s slipped beyond to a realm which can only be described in poetic terms.

8. “Issa’s more pert than Lesbia’s sparrow love, Purer than kisses of a turtle-dove, More sweet than hundred maidens rolled in one, Rarer than wealthy India’s precious stone. She is the pet of Publius, Issa dear; She whines, a human voice you seem to hear.”

In this longer epigraph, Publius’s dog Issa is described in near mythological terms, celebrated in a painting or statue that has since been lost.

9. “Surely even as thou liest dead in this tomb I deem the wild beasts yet fear thy white bones, huntress Lycas; and thy valour great Pelion knows, and splendid Ossa and the lonely peaks of Cithaeron.”

Epitaphs for hunting dogs, like Lycas, often depict the animals not unlike one would a fellow soldier on the battlefield -- underscoring their importance to their owner’s survival.

- More Here

Coder's High !!

I’ve never heard an artist describe a trance that measured up. Maybe they just don’t have the words for it, but creative trances seem far more like drug-induced stupors, in which things may seem clear at the time but are usually hazy fever dreams—for every “Kubla Khan,” there are a thousand awful poems and paintings born of these fever dreams that lack significance to anyone but their creator. Code may be buggy, it may need serious overhaul later, but it compiles, it works (more or less), and it’s the same outside the trance as inside the trance. After a minor writing trance, I’ll usually say, “This is going to need some serious editing.” After a coding trance, I’d say, “This is good stuff! That was seriously productive!”

The closest description of something like coder’s high from a noncoder I ever heard was from a chess player. He described how, in his most lucid moments of concentration, he could suddenly see the entire game laid out before him in his mind, all the possibilities for strategies and many of their upsides and downsides. It was beyond just a mental picture or movie, since it had more information than could be represented in any linear way. It was as though the linear, serial nature of his consciousness had broken down and he finally had access to the vast parallelized processes of the brain all at once. (Certainly the most frustrating moments of the trance were when I would realize I had to change code in five different places in five different files and had to wait for my fingers to make one change at a time.) I’ve also heard mathematicians also portray moments of thinking and insight in similar ways, where the depth of their trances reached a point that the entire logical system at least appeared laid out to them long enough that they could finally put two or three missing pieces together and generate a new insight.

But coding regulates that trance by linking it to an ongoing process of production and goal-directed achievement. Perhaps that is one of its most compelling qualities. Not only do you have the momentary high of total absorption, but it works in tandem with an exciting quest mentality, in which one is hunting perfection. “Coding” isn’t just sitting down and churning out code. There’s a fair amount of that, but it’s complemented by large chunks of testing and debugging, where you put your code through its paces and see where it breaks, then chase down the clues to figure out what went wrong. Sometimes you spend a long time in one phase or another of this cycle, but especially as you near completion, the cycle tightens—and becomes more addictive. You’re boosted by the tight feedback cycle of coding, compiling, testing, and debugging, and each stage pretty much demands the next without delay. You write a feature, you want to see if it works. You test it, it breaks. It breaks, you want to fix it. You fix it, you want to build the next piece. And so on, with the tantalizing possibility of—just maybe!—a perfect piece of code gesturing at you in the distance.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

15 Ways to Stay Married for 15 Years

9. Move:
Live in different houses. In different parts of the country. Travel. Make it so that you can look back and divide up your life into the years you spent in different cities, or different houses. If you’re feeling stuck geographically or physically, you can confuse yourself into thinking you’re stuck romantically. See your husband in different places, in different contexts, in different countries even. Try it. Take him to a mountaintop and give him another look. Pretty sexy. Take him to a new city and check out his profile. Along the same lines, don’t be afraid to change personally, or let your wife change as a person. Don’t worry about “growing apart.” Be brave and evolve. Become completely different. Don’t gather moss. Stagnation is unattractive.

10. Stop thinking temporarily.
Marriage is not conditional. It is permanent. Your husband will be with you until you die. That is a given. It sounds obvious, but really making it a given is hard. You tend to think in “ifs” and “thens” even when you’ve publicly committed to forever. If he does this, I won’t tolerate it. If I do this, he’ll leave me. If I get fat. If I change jobs. If he says mean things. If he doesn’t pay more attention. It’s natural, especially in the beginning of your marriage, to keep those doubts in your head. But the sooner you can get go of the idea that marriage is temporary, and will end if certain awful conditions are met, the sooner you will let go of all kinds of conflict and stress. Yes, you may find yourself in a horrible situation where it’s absolutely necessary to get a divorce. But going into it with divorce in the back of your mind, even in the way way way back of your mind, is going to cause a lot of unnecessary angst. Accept that you’re going to stay with him. He’s going to stay with you. Inhabit that and figure out how to make THAT work, instead of living with the “what if”s and “in case of”s.

11. Do not put yourself in trouble’s way.
Leave your ex boyfriends and girlfriends alone. I’m sure you’re very trustworthy. Aren’t we all? The thing is, there’s absolutely no reason to test it. Your husband and your marriage are more valuable than any friendship. Any friendship that troubles the marriage should be over immediately. Protect it with knives and teeth, not because it’s fragile but because it’s precious. Don’t ass around with a “hall pass” or a “harmless flirtation.” Adultery isn’t an event, it’s a process with an event at the end. Don’t put your feet on a path that could lead someplace bad.

12. Make a husband pact with your friends.
The husband pact says this: I promise to listen to you complain about your husband even in the most dire terms, without it affecting my good opinion of him. I will agree with your harshest criticism, accept your gloomiest predictions. I will nod and furrow my brow and sigh when you describe him as a hideous ogre. Then when your fight is over and love shines again like a beautiful sunbeam in your life, I promise to forget everything you said and regard him as the most charming of princes once more. The husband pact is very useful because you want to be able to vent to your friend without having her actually start hating your husband. Because you don’t really mean all those things you say. And she, the swearer of the pact, knows this.

13. Bitch to his mother, not yours.
This is one I did read somewhere in a magazine, and it’s totally true. His mother will forgive him. Yours never will. If you’re a man, bitch to your friends. They expect it

-  Lydia Netzer, read the rest here

What is the Hope for Humanity? - A Discussion of Technology, Politics and Theology

N.T. Wright: One of the problems is the decline of reason that we don't think properly. We forgotten how to discourse, how to reason discourse, how to lineup arguments and actually work from premises to conclusions and think through issues. So much is done in knee-jerk reactions and may be that's necessary in a complex culture. But in the world of Silicon Valley, somebody has to be doing the very fine tuned, sharp edged stuff otherwise machines aren't gonna work and it will not do what it supposed to do.

Peter Thiel: It's always a very valuable discipline to do that and not to assume that other people had done it for you. And certainly it's a shortcut to assume that other people had done it and don't need to think through this issue and that topic. If had to leave anything to encourage the audience that would be - we live a world of specialists, we know one narrow area and everything else you along with other people think and it takes too much stuff to think things through. And going through that exercise is really valuable.

Fish intelligence, Sentience and Ethics

Fish are one of the most highly utilised vertebrate taxa by humans; they are harvested from wild stocks as part of global fishing industries, grown under intensive aquaculture conditions, are the most common pet and are widely used for scientific research. But fish are seldom afforded the same level of compassion or welfare as warm-blooded vertebrates. Part of the problem is the large gap between people’s perception of fish intelligence and the scientific reality. This is an important issue because public perception guides government policy. The perception of an animal’s intelligence often drives our decision whether or not to include them in our moral circle. From a welfare perspective, most researchers would suggest that if an animal is sentient, then it can most likely suffer and should therefore be offered some form of formal protection. There has been a debate about fish welfare for decades which centres on the question of whether they are sentient or conscious. The implications for affording the same level of protection to fish as other vertebrates are great, not least because of fishing-related industries. Here, I review the current state of knowledge of fish cognition starting with their sensory perception and moving on to cognition. The review reveals that fish perception and cognitive abilities often match or exceed other vertebrates. A review of the evidence for pain perception strongly suggests that fish experience pain in a manner similar to the rest of the vertebrates. Although scientists cannot provide a definitive answer on the level of consciousness for any non-human vertebrate, the extensive evidence of fish behavioural and cognitive sophistication and pain perception suggests that best practice would be to lend fish the same level of protection as any other vertebrate.

- Full paper here

Quote of the Day

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Neurons Pull Together as a Brain Learns

When a cartoon character gets an idea, you know it. A lightbulb goes on over Wile E. Coyote’s head, or a ding sounds as Goofy puts two and two together.

While the lightbulb and sound effects are the stuff of cartoons, scientists can, in a way, watch learning in action. In a new study, a learning task in rats was linked to increases in activity patterns in groups of brain cells. The results might help scientists pin down what learning looks like at the nerve cell level, and give us a clue about how memories are made.

Different areas of the brain communicate with each other, transferring information from one area to another for processing and interpretation. Brain cell meets brain cell at connections called synapses. But to transfer information between areas often takes more than one neuron firing a lonely signal.

It takes cortical oscillations — networks of brain cells sending electrical signals in concert — over and over again for a message to transmit from one brain area to another. Changes in electrical fields increase the probability that neurons in a population will fire. These cortical oscillations are like a large crowd chanting. Not all voices may be yelling at once, some people may be ahead or behind, some may even be whispering, but you still hear an overwhelming “USA! USA!”

Cortical oscillations can occur within a single brain area, or they can extend from one area to another. “The oscillation tells you what the other brain area is likely to ‘see’ when it gets that input,” explains Leslie Kay, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago. Once the receiving area ‘sees’ the incoming oscillation, it may synchronize its own population firing, joining in the chant. “A synchronized pattern of oscillations in two separate brain regions serves to communicate between the two regions,” says Kei Igarashi, a neuroscientist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.

Cortical oscillations are found all over the brain. They play a role in everything from motor coordination to seizures to sleep. They are also thought to be associated with learning and memory.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called "leaves") imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time ― proof that humans can work magic.

- Carl Sagan

Monday, June 23, 2014

What I've Been Reading

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel with Blake Masters. The book is scheduled to release in September but they were kind enough to send an "advance reader's edition" !!

This book was derived from Blake Masters CS813 notes but Thiel has added more of his wisdom. Highly recommended - each chapter has its own unique "Thielian" insight.  You can pre-order the book here.


Back in class one, we identified a very key question that you should continually ask yourself: 

What important truth do very few people agree with you on? To a first approximation, the correct answer is going to be a secret. Secrets are unpopular or unconventional truths. So if you come up with a good answer, that’s your secret.

How many secrets are there in the world? Recall that, reframed in a business context, the key question is: what great company is no one starting? If there are many possible answers, it means that there are many great companies that could be created. If there are no good answers, it’s probably a very bad idea to start a company. From this perspective, the question of how many secrets exist in our world is roughly equivalent to how many startups people should start.

How hard it is to obtain the truth is a key factor to consider when thinking about secrets. Easy truths are simply accepted conventions. Pretty much everybody knows them. On the other side of the spectrum are things that are impossible to figure out. These are mysteries, not secrets. Take superstring theory in physics, for instance. You can’t really design experiments to test it. The big criticism is that no one could ever actually figure it out. But is it just really hard? Or is it a fool’s errand? This distinction is important. Intermediate, difficult things are at least possible. Impossible things are not. Knowing the difference is the difference between pursuing lucrative ventures and guaranteed failure.

Discovery is the process of exposing secrets. The secrets are dis- covered; the cover is removed from the secret. Triangle math was hard for Pythagoras to discover. There were various Pythagorean mystery cults where the initiated learned about crazy new things like irrational numbers. But then it all became convention.

It can also work the other way, too. Conventions can get covered up and become secrets again. It’s often the case that people stop believing things that they or previous generations had believed in the past.

Some secrets are small and incremental. Others are very big. Some secrets—gossip, for instance—are just silly. And of course there are esoteric secrets—the stuff of tarot cards and numerology. Silly and esoteric secrets don’t matter much. And small secrets are of small importance. The focus should be on the secrets that matter: the big secrets that are true.

The purpose of this class is to share and discuss some secrets about starting companies. The big ones so far have involved monopoly vs. competition, the power law, and the importance of distribution.

“Capitalism and competition are antonyms.” That is a secret; it is an important truth, and most people disagree with it. People generally believe that the differences between firms are pretty small. They miss the big monopoly secret because they don’t see through the human secrets behind it. Monopolists pretend that they’re not monopolists (“Don’t regulate us!”) and non-monopolists pretend that they are (“We are so big and important!”). Things only tend to look similar on the surface.

The power law secret operates similarly. In one sense it’s a secret about finance. Startup outcomes are not evenly distributed; the follow a power law distribution. But in another sense it’s a very human secret. People are uncomfortable talking about inequality, so they either ignore it or rationalize it away. It is psychologically difficult for investors to admit that their best investment is worth more than the rest of their portfolio companies combined. So they ignore or hide that fact, and it becomes a secret.

Quote of the Day

The 18th-century philosopher David Hume told us long ago that you can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Two centuries earlier, Montaigne called the art of composing our character our ‘great and glorious masterpiece’, and science can never spare us the burden of this task. Regardless of what evolutionary psychologists decide about our nature, it’s still up to us to choose the lives we want. Yet when it comes to sex, we don’t seem to be especially good at it, which is why so many of us are confused and unhappy. On the bright side, however, we are also in the midst of a massive social transformation that is giving us more sexual freedom than we have ever had before. If evolutionary theory can help us to navigate this dizzying new world, we ought to be willing to listen. After all, we need all the help we can get.

- Is Human Sexuality Determined by Evolution?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Two Poems About What Dogs Think

I am the dog you put to sleep, as you like to call the needle of oblivion, come back to tell you this simple thing: I never liked you. When I licked your face, I thought of biting off your nose. When I watched you toweling yourself dry, I wanted to leap and unman you with a snap. I resented the way you moved, your lack of animal grace, the way you would sit in a chair to eat, a napkin on your lap, a knife in your hand. I would have run away but I was too weak, a trick you taught me while I was learning to sit and heel and, greatest of insults, shake hands without a hand. I admit the sight of the leash would excite me, but only because it meant I was about to smell things you had never touched. You do not want to believe this, but I have no reason to lie: I hated the car, hated the rubber toys, disliked your friends, and worse, your relatives. The jingling of my tags drove me mad. You always scratched me in the wrong place. All I ever wanted from you was food and water in my bowls. While you slept, I watched you breathe as the moon rose in the sky. It took all of my strength not to raise my head and howl. Now, I am free of the collar, free of the yellow raincoat, monogrammed sweater, the absurdity of your lawn, and that is all you need to know about this place, except what you already supposed and are glad it did not happen sooner, that everyone here can read and write, the dogs in poetry, the cats and all the others in prose.

Toward a Better Programming

Programming should be about solving problems, but somewhere along the way it turned into us solving the problems around our problems (a friend and ridiculously good engineer likes to call this a "self licking ice cream cone"). The glue factory answer certainly isn't a desirable one, so I've been trying to come up with something workable since. The one I like the best so far is that programming is our way of encoding thought such that the computer can help us with it.
  • Programming is unobservable - I have no idea what person.walk() does. It probably does something sane, like set isWalking to true, but it could also be setting ateCarrots to true and it may have determined that I passed out from exhaustion - I have no idea and no way to tell. We are quite literally throwing darts in the dark and praying that we at least hit the board. We simply cannot see what our programs do and that's a huge problem whether you're just starting out or have written millions of lines of beautiful code.
  • Programming is indirect - When playing cards, I love it when I get the cards[0][12]. We're writing a card game and cards have real representations, so why can't we just see this instead? Translation is hard and using symbols is error-prone, especially coupled with operations on top of other symbols. This indirectness, this inability to represent things usefully and directly manipulate them, is killing us. A vast number of programming errors are simple translation problems. We had the solution in our head, but in trying to turn it into code we just forgot something or translated it very slightly wrong. We have to get away from that translation. When we do UI, we should do it in a visual editor. When we do math, we should have something like Mathematica at our fingertips. We should express domains in the ways they most naturally present themselves in, not with our own homegrown obfuscations.
  • Programming is incidentally complex - There is an immense amount of incidental complexity in writing software, by which I mean there's a bunch of work that needs to be done that isn't directly related to the real problem you're trying to solve. Just think about how long it takes to even get something simple to run or the fact that people can spend the better part of a week just trying to set up a dev machine from scratch. These are some simple examples of unnecessary complexity at a systems level, but the truth is incidental concerns are pervasive throughout the entire process of writing software. One of the worst for us right now is at the logic level - managing time in our code. Most people tend to jump immediately to concurrency and parallelism when I say that, but it's actually more fundamental than that. There are so many examples of incidental complexity in programming it would be disheartening to try and enumerate all of them, but we have to start addressing them at some point. We should be focused on solving our problems - not solving the problems around solving our problems.
  • Chasing local maxima - If you look at much of the advances that have made it to the mainstream over the past 50 years, it turns out they largely increased our efficiency without really changing the act of programming. I think the reason why is something I hinted at in the very beginning of this post: it's all been reactionary and as a result we tend to only apply tactical fixes. As a matter of fact, almost every step we've taken fits cleanly into one of these buckets. We've made things better but we keep reaching local maxima because we assume that these things can somehow be addressed independently. The best analogy I've heard for what this has resulted in is teacups stacked on top of teacups. Each time we fix something, we push ourselves up some, but eventually we're working under so many layers of abstraction that the tower starts to lean and threatens to fall down. We have to stop thinking about these issues individually, and instead start imagining what it would take to address them all simultaneously.
  • The people's programming - I mentioned when I talked with folks that I talked to non-programmers too. I did so because they would provide a very different view and the truth is that most of them are programmers by my definition. They just don't happen to write "code". If you use Excel, you're programming - you're getting the computer to do work for you based on a process you've encoded for it. Excel provides a particularly interesting example, given that it has been massively successful at enabling people to solve problems. It also happens to address all three of our fundamental issues and gives us some evidence that doing so can create an incredibly powerful and approachable environment for people to work in. Excel is inherently observable since it doesn't have any hidden state and all values are there for you to see and manipulate. It's also direct. You change values in the grid, drag drop things, do calculations on selections, and so on. And it manages to sidestep a lot of incidental complexity; spreadsheets are timeless, without setup, and don't even have a notion of being run. Excel achieves this, however, by making a tradeoff in power. There are a lot of things it cannot express very well (or at all) because of the constraints placed on the programming model. The interesting question is whether we can solve our issues in a similar way, but ease some of the constraints to retain more power.

    - Chris Granger

Quote of the Day

The first consequence of the principle of bounded rationality is that the intended rationality of an actor requires him to construct a simplified model of the real situation in order to deal with it. He behaves rationally with respect to this model, and such behavior is not even approximately optimal with respect to the real world. To predict his behavior we must understand the way in which this simplified model is constructed, and its construction will certainly be related to his psychological properties as a perceiving, thinking, and learning animal.

- Herbert A. Simon, Models of Man: Social and Rational- Mathematical Essays on Rational Human Behavior in a Social Setting

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Wisdom Of The Week

Every robot journalist first needs to ingest a bunch of data. Data rich domains like weather were some of the first to have practical natural language generation systems. Now we’re seeing a lot of robot journalism applied to sports and finance — domains where the data can be standardized and made fairly clean. The development of sensor journalism may provide entirely new troves of data for producing automated stories. Key here is having clean and comprehensive data, so if you’re working in a domain that’s still stuck with PDFs or sparse access, the robots haven’t gotten there yet.

After data is read in by the algorithm the next step is to compute interesting or newsworthy features from the data. Basically the algorithm is trying to figure out the most critical aspects of an event, like a sports game. It has newsworthiness criteria built into its statistics. So for example, it looks for surprising statistical deviations like minimums, maximums, or outliers, big swings and changes in a value, violations of an expectation, a threshold being crossed, or a substantial change in a predictive model. “Any feature the value of which deviates significantly from prior expectation, whether the source of that expectation is due to a local computation or from an external source, is interesting by virtue of that deviation from expectation,” the Narrative Science patent reads. So for a baseball game the algorithm computes “win probability” after every play. If win probability has a big delta in-between two plays it probably means something important just happened and the algorithm puts that on a list of events that might be worthy of inclusion in the final story.

Once some interesting features have been identified, angles are then selected from a pre-authored library. Angles are explanatory or narrative structures that provide coherence to the overall story. Basically they are patterns of events, circumstances, entities, and their features. An angle for a sports story might be “back-and-forth horserace”, “heroic individual performance”, “strong team effort”, or “came out of a slump”. Certain angles are triggered according to the presence of certain derived features (from the previous step). Each angle is given an importance value from 1 to 10 which is then used to rank that angle against all of the other proposed angles.

Once the angles have been determined and ordered they are linked to specific story points, which connect back to individual pieces of data like names of players or specific numeric values like score. Story points can also be chosen and prioritized to account for personal interests such as home team players. These points can then be augmented with additional factual content drawn from internet databases such as where a player is from, or a quote or picture of them.

The last step the robot journalist takes is natural language generation, which for the Narrative Science system is done by recursively traversing all of the angle and story point representations and using phrasal generation routines to generate and splice together the actual English text. This is probably by far the most straightforward aspect of the entire pipeline — it’s pretty much just fancy templates.

So, there you have it, the pipeline for a robot journalist:

(1) ingest data, (2) compute newsworthy aspects of the data, (3) identify relevant angles and prioritize them, (4) link angles to story points, and (5) generate the output text.

- The Anatomy of a Robot Journalist

Music, Art, and Cognitive Benefit - Separating Fact from Fallacy

What’s the bigger picture that you see emerging from science’s ongoing efforts to study the brain effects of music and arts?

ESS: Music and visual arts are universal across human cultures, and also unique to humans. These simple facts raise wonderful questions for brain science. Human brains function similarly to the brains of other animals; yet, our species takes these shared biological capacities in dramatically new directions. We have a lot to learn about ourselves from research that probes what goes on in our brains when we experience or create music or visual arts—and what goes on in the brains of our children when we share arts experiences with them. I think these are much more important questions than the question of whether a child will gain a few IQ or SAT points by taking music classes. By focusing on the latter question, we miss the richness of human experience and essential importance of the arts in human learning.

As a scientist, do you think it matters that (as surveys suggest) more than 80 percent of people think that music makes you smarter when the scientific evidence is not there to back it up? 

ESS: I think questions such as whether music should be taught in schools—and more broadly, whether human societies would be poorer if music were neglected—are important questions. We don’t know the answers yet. I wouldn’t say that people who believe that music makes you smarter are wrong or right. We just simply don’t know enough about the human mind at this point to be able to specify the cognitive impacts of music, or of any of the other activities that people universally engage in. Among all our uniquely human capacities, is there a subset of capacities that are especially important, amid a larger sea of less important ones? My hunch is that all our culturally universal, species-unique capacities for creating knowledge are important, and all should be imparted to our children. But I don’t think science yet bears on this belief.

So I stand by the modest conclusions of our PLoS ONE paper. Our findings don’t debunk any beliefs and they shouldn’t close off research in any area. Quite the contrary: we need more research on arts, cognition and the brain. The arts are a central product of the human mind and a central aspect of human experience. By studying how our minds create them, we'll gain insight into ourselves.

- Full interview with Elizabeth S. Spelke, Ph.D. here

Quote of the Day

Friday, June 20, 2014

Is There a Crisis of False Negatives in Psychology?

There are many reasons why a false negative could occur, including these:
  • Replications might be conducted by researchers who are inexperienced or lack expertise, either in general or in the particular area they are trying to replicate.
  • As has been well documented, researchers are human and can act in ways that make them more likely to confirm a hypothesis, resulting in p-hacking. But replicators are human too, and if their hypothesis is that an effect will not replicate, they too can act in ways that increase the likelihood of obtaining that outcome—a practice we might call p-squashing. For example, it would be relatively easy to take an independent variable that had a significant effect in the laboratory, translate it into an on-line study that delivers the manipulation in a much weaker fashion, and then run hundreds of participants, resulting in a null effect. Adding such a study to a meta-analysis could cancel out positive findings from several smaller studies because of its very large sample size, resulting in meta p-squashing.
  • As others have noted (e.g., Stroebe & Strack, 2013), a direct replication could fail because it was conducted in a different context or with a different population, and as a result did not manipulate the psychological construct in the same manner as did the original study.
Do I have evidence that many of the studies that have been done as part of the current replication movement have been plagued by the above problems? Well, not much, though I suggest that the evidence is equally weak that false positives are rampant. One might even argue that there is just as much evidence that we have a crisis of false negatives as we do a crisis of false positives.

- More Here

Lab Animals Spark Debate

Writing in the BMJ, Yale University epidemiologist Michael Bracken and UK medical sociologist Pandora Pound argued that too many animal trials investigating medical treatments are poorly designed, and called for better use of systematic reviews to maximize their benefit. Lenny Verkooijen, a clinical epidemiologist at University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands, tweeted that there is “insufficient systematic evidence for the clinical benefits of animal research”. But in a letter to the journal, pharmacologist Fernando Martins do Vale at the University of Lisbon noted that animal research has benefited medicine and has led to “seminal discoveries in the field of physiology, biochemistry, pharmacology and genetics”.

Bracken and Pound cite several examples of ultimately futile animal research. They write that decades of stroke studies using animal models have yet to yield a single treatment that is useful for humans. Likewise, they note, not one of the more than 100 drugs that have been tested in a mouse model of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis has proved to be beneficial after further experiments. Part of the problem, they argue, is basic biology: the gulf between lab animals and humans is often too wide for meaningful extrapolation. But they also see basic shortcomings in how animal studies are carried out. They cite an analysis of 271 animal studies conducted between 1999 and 2005, which found that only 12% included randomization for treatments and controls. Systematic reviews — which are relatively uncommon in animal research — have pointed to widespread bias in reporting and publishing of results, they write.

In an e-mail, Bracken clarifies that he isn't calling for any sort of ban or moratorium on animal research. “We are saying that badly designed ... animal research, which is now widely documented to be commonplace, is unethical.” Not only do such trials fail to benefit humans, he says, but they can also actively harm people who are enrolled in clinical trials of drugs or other therapies.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

Every moment in business happens only once. The next Bill Gates will not build an operating system. The next Larry Page or Sergey Brin won’t make a search engine. And the next Mark Zuckerberg won’t create a social network. If you are copying these guys, you aren’t learning from them.

It’s easier to copy a model than to make something new: doing what we already know how to do takes the world from 1 to n, adding more of something familiar. But every time we create something new, we go from 0 to 1. The act of creation is singular, as is the moment of creation, and the result is something fresh and strange.

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Zero to One - Peter Thiel

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel. Pre-order arrived today,  3 months before release !!

Can Neuroscience Help Us Rewrite Our Most Traumatic Memories?

Memory “works a little bit more like a Wikipedia page,” Loftus said in a recent speech. “You can go in there and change it, but so can other people.”

Scientists were already aware that making a memory requires chemical activity in the brain. But neurons are programmed by our DNA, and they rarely change. On the other hand, synapses, the small gaps between neurons, turn out to be highly mutable. Synaptic networks grow as we learn, often sprouting entirely new branches, based on the way that chemical messengers called neurotransmitters pass between neurons. “The growth and maintenance of new synaptic terminals makes memory persist,” Kandel wrote in his book “In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind” (2006). “Thus, if you remember anything of this book, it will be because your brain is slightly different after you have finished reading it.”

Nader was thrilled by the idea that one could watch an organism form a memory. “I was not trained as a neuroscientist in memory or in consolidation,” he told me recently on the phone from McGill University, where he is now a professor of psychology. “Kandel talked about the physiology of the neuron on the most basic level, and I was amazed. But I didn’t understand why a thing like that—the complete chemical production required to form a memory—would happen just once. I looked at the data and thought, What makes us so certain that, after our memories are formed, they are fixed forever?”

- More here from Michael Specter

Quote of the Day

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Shakespeare's Debt to Montaigne

In his essay “Of the Affection of Fathers to Their Children,” Montaigne, sharply criticising aged parents who expect their grown children to be grateful to them and who cling avidly to their possessions, gives powerful voice to the resentment of the young: “It is mere injustice to see an old, crazed, sinew-shrunken, and nigh-dead father sitting alone in a chimney-corner to enjoy so many goods as would suffice for the preferment and entertainment of many children, and in the meanwhile, for want of means, to suffer them to lose their best days and years without thrusting them into public service and knowledge of men.”

This geriatric avarice can make children despair, driving them “to seek by some way how unlawful soever to provide for their necessaries.” Far from producing dutiful obedience, a parental policy of clinging to wealth and treating the younger generation sternly only “maketh fathers irksome unto children, and which is worse, ridiculous.”

How could it not have this effect? For, as Montaigne coolly notes, children in fact “have youth and strength in their hands, and consequently the breath and favour of the world, and do with mockery and contempt receive these churlish, fierce, and tyrannical countenances from a man that hath no lusty blood left him.”

Shakespeare was evidently struck by these passages, for he worked them into his depiction of the bastard Edmund in King Lear, simmering with resentment, frustration, mockery, contempt, and a determination “to seek, by some way how unlawful soever” to provide for himself. Specifically, Shakespeare takes Montaigne’s words, in Florio’s translation, and fashions them into the forged letter that Edmund fobs off as his brother Edgar’s.

“I hope,” Edmund declares with a fraudulent show of concern on his brother’s behalf, that he wrote this letter “but as an essay or taste of my virtue.” It is difficult not to see in that word “essay” a playful allusion to Montaigne, for what follows is simply a variation on themes from “Of the Affection of Fathers to Their Children”. Credulous old Gloucester swallows the bait and cries treason.

- More Here

How Not to Be Wrong - The Power of Mathematical Thinking

Review of the new book How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking  by Jordan Ellenberg:

Ellenberg hooks you from the start with the story of Abraham Wald, asked to analyze bullet-hole data from planes returning from World War II sorties. The military wanted to know whether extra armor should be added to areas of greatest need, i.e., where the most bullets had landed. Wald’s solution was the exact opposite: Put armor where you don’t see the bullet holes. The reason such holes were so infrequent in the data was that planes hit there didn’t return.

This is the kind of “mathematical thinking” referred to in the title of the book: “the extension of common sense by other means.” Ellenberg’s talent for finding real-life situations that enshrine mathematical principles would be the envy of any math teacher. He presents these in fluid succession, like courses in a fine restaurant, taking care to make each insight shine through, unencumbered by jargon or notation. Part of the sheer intellectual joy of the book is watching the author leap nimbly from topic to topic, comparing slime molds to the Bush-Gore Florida vote, criminology to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The final effect is of one enormous mosaic unified by mathematics.

Or, more frequently, statistics — misleading probabilities and percentages form the perfect set of targets, given Ellenberg’s vow to simplify. Take the Wisconsin Republican Party’s 2011 claim that Gov.Scott Walker’s policies were responsible for “over 50 percent of U.S. job growth in June.” It’s true that 18,000 jobs had been added nationally, with 9,500 in Wisconsin. But job losses in other states canceled out such gains, rendering these percentages meaningless. Neighboring Minnesota, for instance, had added 13,000 jobs, so Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton could have claimed 70 percent of the national gain had he so chosen.

Quote of the Day

But in some form or another, a lot of people believe that there are only easy truths and impossible truths left. They tend not to believe in hard truths that can be solved with technology.

Pretty much all fundamentalists think this way. Take religious fundamentalism, for example. There are lots of easy truths that even kids know. And then there are the mysteries of God, which can’t be explained. In between—the zone of hard truths—is heresy. Environmental fundamentalism works the same way. The easy truth is that we must protect the environment. Beyond that, Mother Nature knows best, and she cannot be questioned. There’s even a market version of this, too. The value of things is set by the market. Even a child can look up stock prices. Prices are easy truths. But those truths must be accepted, not questioned. The market knows far more than you could ever know. Even Einstein couldn’t outguess God, Nature, or Market.

- Peter Thiel

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Humanity is a Figment of the Imagination - John Grey

John Grey review of  new book The Quest for a Moral Compass: a Global History of Ethics by Kenan Malik:

The Quest for a Moral Compass is a rationalist history of ethics in which all of the repugnant and troubling elements of rationalism have been airbrushed, Soviet-style, from the record. To be sure, the absence from the book of the sleazy side of rationalism may come in part from mere ignorance. In any event, it’s clear that Malik prefers not to know. From one angle this may be the normal dishonesty of an evangelising ideologue: Malik has a world-view to promote, and he’s not going to let awkward facts get in his way. From another perspective, The Quest for a Moral Compass is a testament to the perplexities of secular faith. Like Lecky, Malik writes in order to prop up a belief in moral progress. The difference is that while the Victorian sage appears to have had few doubts regarding the creed he was promoting, Malik often seems as anxious to persuade himself as to persuade his readers.

If you strip away religion and metaphysics and think of the human species in strictly naturalistic terms, you will see that “humanity” – the universal subject, together with Marx, that Malik inherits from monotheism – is a figment of the imagination. “Science cannot determine values,” Malik writes, “because one cannot determine what is right and wrong without already having constructed a moral framework within which to evaluate the data.” True enough; but if you cannot call on any conception of humanity from an area of knowledge outside science, what reason could there be for thinking that one and only one system of values is peculiarly human? Or for thinking of history as a process in which these values are gradually unfolding?

Quote of the Day

A breakthrough in machine learning would be worth ten Microsofts.

- Bill Gates

Monday, June 16, 2014

What I've Been Reading

No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State by Glenn Greenwald. One the best books of the year; it was like watching Jason Bourne movie marathon (only this one is real). A must read!!

The Obama administration, which has brought more prosecutions against leakers than all prior presidencies combined, has sought to create a climate of fear that would stifle any attempts at whistle-blowing. But Snowden has destroyed that template. He has managed to remain free, outside the grasp of the United States; what’s more, he has refused to remain in hiding but proudly came forward and identified himself. As a result, the public image of him is not a convict in orange jumpsuit and shackles but an independent, articulate figure who can speak for himself, explaining what he did and why. It is no longer possible for the US government to distract from the message simply by demonizing the messenger. There is a powerful lesson here for future whistle-blowers: speaking the truth does not have to destroy your life.

And for the rest of us, Snowden’s inspirational effect is no less profound. Quite simply, he has reminded everyone about the extraordinary ability of any human being to change the world. An ordinary person in all outward respects— raised by parents without particular wealth or power, lacking even a high school diploma, working as an obscure employee of a giant corporation— he has, through a single act of conscience, literally altered the course of history.

I’m Just Now Realizing How Stupid We Are

  • I've learned that changing your mind is one of the most difficult things we do. It is far easier to fool yourself into believing a falsehood than admit a mistake.
  • I've learned that short-term thinking is at the root of most of our problems, whether it's in business, politics, investing, or work.
  • I've learned that debt can cause more social problems than some drugs, yet drugs are illegal and debt is tax deductible.
  • I've learned that finance is actually very simple, but it's made to look complicated to justify fees.
  • I've learned that self-interest is the most powerful force in the world. People in unethical, predatory, and nonsense jobs will do mental gymnastics to convince themselves they're doing the right thing. Those who criticize the behavior of "greedy Wall Street bankers" underestimate their tendency to do the same thing if offered an eight-figure salary.
  • I've learned that a willingness to wait longer than other people is your biggest natural edge. If you can think about the next five years while everyone else is fixated on the next five months, you have an advantage that makes high-frequency trading, insider tips, and corporate loopholes look like a joke.
  • I've learned that "do nothing" is the best advice for almost everyone almost all the time.
- Morgan House's 3000th column

Quote of the Day

We inherit every one of our genes, but we leave the womb without a single microbe. As we pass through our mother's birth canal, we begin to attract entire colonies of bacteria. By the time a child can crawl, he has been blanketed by an enormous, unseen cloud of microorganisms--a hundred trillion or more. They are bacteria, mostly, but also viruses and fungi (including a variety of yeasts), and they come at us from all directions: other people, food, furniture, clothing, cars, buildings, trees, pets, even the air we breathe. They congregate in our digestive systems and our mouths, fill the space between our teeth, cover our skin, and line our throats. We are inhabited by as many as ten thousand bacterial species; those cells outnumber those which we consider our own by ten to one, and weigh, all told, about three pounds--the same as our brain. Together, they are referred to as our microbiome--and they play such a crucial role in our lives that scientists like [Martin J.] Blaser have begun to reconsider what it means to be human. 

- Michael Specter

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Quote of the Day

After two decades of growth in the demand for occupations high in cognitive tasks, the US economy reversed and experienced a decline in the demand for such skills. The demand for cognitive tasks was to a large extent the motor of the US labor market prior to 2000. Once this motor reversed, the employment rate in the US economy started to contract. As we have emphasized, while this demand for cognitive tasks directly effects mainly high skilled workers, we have provided evidence that it has indirectly affected lower skill workers by pushing them out of jobs that have been taken up by higher skilled worker displaced from cognitive occupations. This has resulted in high growth in employment in low skilled manual jobs with declining wages in those occupations, and has pushed many low skill individuals out of the labor market.

Thomas Edsall

Wisdom Of The Week

I am currently reading Glenn Greenwald's eye-opening book No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State and the followig excerpts convinced me that Snowden is not just technically savvy but intellectually as well.

Apart from anything else, I wanted to be sure he had made his choice with a genuine and rational understanding of the consequences: I was unwilling to help him take so great a risk unless I was convinced he was doing so with full autonomy and agency, with a real grasp of his purpose.

Finally, Snowden gave me an answer that felt vibrant and real. “The true measurement of a person’s worth isn’t what they say they believe in, but what they do in defense of those beliefs,” he said. “If you’re not acting on your beliefs, then they probably aren’t real.” How had he developed this measure for assessing his worth? Where did he derive this belief that he could only be acting morally if he was willing to sacrifice his own interests for the sake of the greater good?

“From a lot of different places, a lot of experiences,” Snowden said. He had grown up reading large amounts of Greek mythology and was influenced by Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which, he noted, “finds common threads among the stories we all share.” The primary lesson he took away from that the book was that “it is we who infuse life with meaning through our actions and the stories we create with them.” People are only that which their actions define them as being. “I don’t want to be a person who remains afraid to act in defense of my principles.”

Massive Ocean of Water 400 miles Underground Discovered

Researchers at Northwestern University have found evidence for a massive reservoir of water deep within the Earth's mantle. The reservoir, which is said to be three times the volume of the oceans on the surface, is contained within highly-pressurized rock known as ringwoodite. The scientists hope that their findings, recently published in the journal Science, can shed light on where Earth's oceans came from.

The team, led by mineralogist Steven Jacobsen, used an array of 2000 seismometers to study how seismic waves generated by earthquakes move through the Earth's interior. The waves' speed changed depending on the type of rock they pass through, and wet ringwoodite has a particular effect on wave velocity. Jacobsen was able to reproduce wet ringwoodite in his lab, and the group's findings matched what he observed in the lab. As it turns out, ringwoodite, under the extreme heat and pressure of the mantle, bleeds water. That water would then become trapped in the transition zone at between roughly 200 and 400 miles underground.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

We found a wonderful quote from Voltaire that I'll end with, and we put it in the book. He said, Work saves us from three great evils: boredom, vice, and need. Of those three, the need is going to be the easiest to take care of, by far, because of this abundant world that we are heading into. How we handle the boredom and the vice of people who want to work but can't find an employer who is willing to take them on, that's going to be one of the huge challenges we confront. I'm sure we'll have a chance to talk about it later this morning. So, thanks very much.

- Andrew McAfee, author of The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Next Green Revolution May Rely on Microbes

Sanders’ Swiss workplace is immaculately clean, and the room where the fungi are taken out for study is scrupulously sterile. Every night, all night, UV lights shine a microbe-killing glare. They destroy anything that could infect his cultures of mycorrhizal fungi.

Over the course of Sanders’ 26-year career, he’s made a number of key discoveries about fungi genetics and reproduction. He conducted early research that demonstrated that the greater the diversity of mycorrhizal fungi in a given ecosystem, the greater the diversity of plants. And in 2008, as he delved into genetics, he proved that they don’t just reproduce by cloning—they actually exchange genetic material, both in the lab and in the field.

This gave him an idea. If the microbes created offspring that were different from one another, Sanders thought, “you have a good chance that some will be more effective on plant growth than others.” So he came up with a plan: Take different fungi, breed them, see if any help plants out more than others. In other words, take the approach to farming that breeders have used for thousands of years and use it on fungi.

This is where Sanders runs into occasional criticism from some of his microbe-studying colleagues, who say that nature has already bred all the best variety of microbes. “If you use the argument from these researchers,” he counters, “then no one would have produced any plants through plant breeding, because they would have said, ‘Well, nature’s already made the best plants, and we can’t make any more that are any better than what nature has made.’ Now, of course, we know from a few thousand years of agriculture that we can make plants better by crossing them, and we can get varieties that produce bigger yields than that which we see in natural-occurring varieties of those plants in nature.” Without similar human intervention, the whole system of microbial support might not be optimally tweaked to match.

To test out his idea, Sanders partnered with a colleague in Switzerland who was studying the genetics of the fungi-rice relationship, and who already had conducted research in a university greenhouse set up for rice cultivation. Sanders grew the fungi and allowed them to exchange genetic material and reproduce, creating genetically distinct offspring. Then, he colonized rice with these distinct lines. Sanders used rice as a matter of convenience due to his colleague’s experience, but he also knew that rice, as farmed today, tends to actually grow more poorly when inoculated with mycorrhizal fungi, making it a good test bed. He was stunned when one of the lines produced a five-fold increase in growth over the other fungal lines. “To see such a huge growth increase was very, very surprising,” he says. The greenhouse was an artificial environment, and the microbe-enhanced soil was compared to sterile soil. It in no way mimicked nature. But it proved a point.

Around that time, Sanders got back in touch with Alia Rodriguez, an agronomist in Colombia who also had expertise in mycorrhizal fungi. They had originally met when he was one of her PhD examiners in England. He was desperate to visit Colombia and see its amazing animal and plant biodiversity for himself, so they decided to try to find a research project together.

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