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Monday, November 23, 2015

Work begins at Dawn

Contemplating the Future

A great profile of Nick Bostrom in the New Yorker. I often run into Nick at SciFoo and other similar meetings. When Nick is around I know there's a much better chance the discussion will stay on a highbrow, constructive track. It's surprising how often, even at these heavily screened elitist meetings, precious time gets wasted in digressions away from the main points.

The article is long, but very well done. The New Yorker still has it ... sometimes :-(

I was a bit surprised to learn Nick does not like Science Fiction. To take a particular example, Dune explores (very well, I think) a future history in which mankind has a close brush with AI takeover, and ends up banning machines that can think. At the same time, a long term genetic engineering program is taken up in secret to produce a truly superior human intellect. See also Don’t Worry, Smart Machines Will Take Us With Them: Why human intelligence and AI will co-evolve.
New Yorker: ... Bostrom dislikes science fiction. “I’ve never been keen on stories that just try to present ‘wow’ ideas—the equivalent of movie productions that rely on stunts and explosions to hold the attention,” he told me. “The question is not whether we can think of something radical or extreme but whether we can discover some sufficient reason for updating our credence function.”

He believes that the future can be studied with the same meticulousness as the past, even if the conclusions are far less firm. “It may be highly unpredictable where a traveller will be one hour after the start of her journey, yet predictable that after five hours she will be at her destination,” he once argued. “The very long-term future of humanity may be relatively easy to predict.” He offers an example: if history were reset, the industrial revolution might occur at a different time, or in a different place, or perhaps not at all, with innovation instead occurring in increments over hundreds of years. In the short term, predicting technological achievements in the counter-history might not be possible; but after, say, a hundred thousand years it is easier to imagine that all the same inventions would have emerged.

Bostrom calls this the Technological Completion Conjecture: “If scientific- and technological-development efforts do not effectively cease, then all impor­t­­­ant basic capabilities that could be obtained through some possible technology will be obtained.” In light of this, he suspects that the farther into the future one looks the less likely it seems that life will continue as it is. He favors the far ends of possibility: humanity becomes transcendent or it perishes. ...
I've never consumed Futurism as other than entertainment. (In fact I view most Futurism as on the same continuum as Science Fiction.) I think hard scientists tend to be among the most skeptical of medium to long term predictive power, and can easily see the mistakes that Futurists (and pundits and journalists) make about science and technology with great regularity. Bostrom is not in the same category as these others: he has sufficient horsepower, tries to be careful, but remains willing to consider speculative possibilities.
... When he was a graduate student in London, thinking about how to maximize his ability to communicate, he pursued stand­­up comedy; he has a deadpan sense of humor, which can be found lightly buried among the book’s self-serious passages. “Many of the points made in this book are probably wrong,” he writes, with an endnote that leads to the line “I don’t know which ones.”

Bostrom prefers to act as a cartographer rather than a polemicist, but beneath his exhaustive mapping of scenarios one can sense an argument being built and perhaps a fear of being forthright about it. “Traditionally, this topic domain has been occupied by cranks,” he told me. “By popular media, by science fiction—or maybe by a retired physicist no longer able to do serious work, so he will write a popular book and pontificate. That is kind of the level of rigor that is the baseline. I think that a lot of reasons why there has not been more serious work in this area is that academics don’t want to be conflated with flaky, crackpot type of things. Futurists are a certain type.”

The book begins with an “unfinished” fable about a flock of sparrows that decide to raise an owl to protect and advise them. They go looking for an owl egg to steal and bring back to their tree, but, because they believe their search will be so difficult, they postpone studying how to domesticate owls until they succeed. Bostrom concludes, “It is not known how the story ends.”

The parable is his way of introducing the book’s core question: Will an A.I., if realized, use its vast capability in a way that is beyond human control?

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Amazon's The Man in the High Castle

Season 2 will be released soon on Amazon Prime. If you like The Man in the High Castle, you might like David Brin's short story (and graphic novel) Thor meets Captain America.

Related posts on Philip K. Dick.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Drone racing

Wow! The potential here is amazing. One of the guys in the video compares it to pod racing in Star Wars.

Also cool:

Microaggressions, Moral Cultures, and the Culture of Victimhood

Two sociologists theorize the campus culture of victimhood as a transition to a third moral culture, supplanting earlier cultures centered around honor and dignity. Their theory gives a possible explanation for why a well-meaning liberal like Yale Professor Christakis has such difficulty communicating with protestors in the videos above. Christakis is focused on logic, rationality, and open discussion, while the students want a Safe Space and someone who acknowledges their pain without analyzing it.

Growing up, I could easily understand that there was a "generation gap" between people my age and our parents and teachers. But I could not imagine what the gap would be like between us and our own children and students. (Gee, I'm hip, and I'll always understand what it's like to be a kid or teenager...) Perhaps this is it.
Microaggression and Moral Cultures
Authors: Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning
Source: Comparative Sociology, Volume 13, Issue 6, pages 692 – 726 (2014)
DOI 10.1163/15691330-12341332

Campus activists and others might refer to slights of one’s ethnicity or other cultural characteristics as “microaggressions,” and they might use various forums to publicize them. Here we examine this phenomenon by drawing from Donald Black’s theories of conflict and from cross-cultural studies of conflict and morality. We argue that this behavior resembles other conflict tactics in which the aggrieved actively seek the support of third parties as well as those that focus on oppression. We identify the social conditions associated with each feature, and we discuss how the rise of these conditions has led to large-scale moral change such as the emergence of a victimhood culture that is distinct from the honor cultures and dignity cultures of the past.
Summarized here by Jonathan Haidt. (I highly recommend following the link as Haidt excerpts from the paper and adds insightful commentary.) More in The Atlantic and Chronicle.
... We’re beginning a second transition of moral cultures. The first major transition happened in the 18th and 19th centuries when most Western societies moved away from cultures of honor (where people must earn honor and must therefore avenge insults on their own) to cultures of dignity in which people are assumed to have dignity and don’t need to earn it. They foreswear violence, turn to courts or administrative bodies to respond to major transgressions, and for minor transgressions they either ignore them or attempt to resolve them by social means. There’s no more dueling.

Campbell and Manning describe how this culture of dignity is now giving way to a new culture of victimhood in which people are encouraged to respond to even the slightest unintentional offense, as in an honor culture. But they must not obtain redress on their own; they must appeal for help to powerful others or administrative bodies, to whom they must make the case that they have been victimized. It is the very presence of such administrative bodies, within a culture that is highly egalitarian and diverse (i.e., many college campuses) that gives rise to intense efforts to identify oneself as a fragile and aggrieved victim. This is why we have seen the recent explosion of concerns about microaggressions, combined with demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces, that Greg Lukianoff and I wrote about in The Coddling of the American Mind.

... The key idea is that the new moral culture of victimhood fosters “moral dependence” and an atrophying of the ability to handle small interpersonal matters on one’s own. At the same time that it weakens individuals, it creates a society of constant and intense moral conflict as people compete for status as victims or as defenders of victims.
If I were a sociologist or psychologist I might coin new terms like Self-Infantilization or Hyper-Sensitivity Social Justice Disorder.

See also Struggles at Yale and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers

Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, by Tom Wolfe. First appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine, April 1971. (The Sixties lasted well into the Seventies!) Collected, together with Radical Chic, in this Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition (2009).
Tom Wolfe understands the human animal like no sociologist around. He tweaks his reader's every buried thought and prejudice. He sees through everything. He is as original and outrageous as ever.  ―The New York Times.

Wolfe describes hapless bureaucrats (the Flak Catchers) whose function was reduced to taking abuse, or "mau-mauing" (in reference to the intimidation tactics employed in Kenya's anti-colonial Mau Mau Uprising)...  ―Wikipedia.

Wolfe: ... If you were outrageous enough ... you could shake up the bureaucrats so bad that their eyes froze into iceballs and their mouths twisted up into smiles of sheer physical panic, into shit-eating grins, so to speak ...

... Nobody kept records on the confrontations, which is too bad. There must have been hundreds of them in San Francisco alone. Across the country there must have been thousands. When the confrontations touched the white middle class in a big way, like when black students started strikes and disruptions at San Francisco State, Columbia, Cornell, or Yale, ... -- then the media described it blow by blow. But what went on in the colleges and churches was just a part of it. ...

... The whites' physical fear of the Chinese was nearly zero. The white man pictured the Chinese as small, quiet, restrained little fellows. He had a certain deep-down voodoo fear of their powers of Evil in the Dark ... the Hatchet Men ... the Fangs of the Tong ... but it wasn't a live fear. For that matter, the young Chinese themselves weren't ready for the age of mau-mauing. It wasn't that they feared the white man, the way black people had. It was more that they didn't fear or resent white people enough. They looked down on whites as childish and uncultivated. They also found it somewhat shameful to present themselves as poor and oppressed, on the same level with Negroes and Mexican-Americans.

Ecclesiastes 1:9 King James Version

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Huxley: Brave New World Revisited

"Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they're so frightfully clever. I'm really awfuly glad I'm a Beta, because I don't work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. ..."
Brave New World was written in 1932. In 1958 Huxley reconsidered his dystopian novel in a long essay.
Quantity, Quality, Morality

In the Brave New World of my fantasy eugenics and dysgenics were practiced systematically. In one set of bottles biologically superior ova, fertilized by biologi­cally superior sperm, were given the best possible pre­natal treatment and were finally decanted as Betas, Alphas and even Alpha Pluses. In another, much more numerous set of bottles, biologically inferior ova, ferti­lized by biologically inferior sperm, ... [t]he creatures finally decanted were almost subhuman; but they were capa­ble of performing unskilled work and, when properly conditioned, detensioned by free and frequent access to the opposite sex, constantly distracted by gratuitous entertainment and reinforced in their good behavior patterns by daily doses of soma, could be counted on to give no trouble to their superiors.

In this second half of the twentieth century we do nothing systematic about our breeding; but in our random and unregulated way we are not only over-populating our planet, we are also, it would seem, mak­ing sure that these greater numbers shall be of biologically poorer quality. ... And along with a decline of average healthiness there may well go a decline in average intelligence. Indeed, some competent authorities are convinced that such a decline has already taken place and is continuing. "Un­der conditions that are both soft and unregulated," writes Dr. W. H. Sheldon, "our best stock tends to be outbred by stock that is inferior to it in every respect. . . . It is the fashion in some academic circles to assure students that the alarm over differential birth­rates is unfounded; that these problems are merely economic, or merely educational, or merely religious, or merely cultural or something of the sort. This is Pollyanna optimism. Reproductive delinquency is biologi­cal and basic." And he adds that "nobody knows just how far the average IQ in this country [the U.S.A.] has declined since 1916, when Terman attempted to standardize the meaning of IQ 100."

... And now let us consider the case of the rich, industrialized and democratic society, in which, owing to the random but effective practice of dysgenics, IQ's and physical vigor are on the decline. For how long can such a society maintain its traditions of individual liberty and democratic government? Fifty or a hundred years from now our children will learn the answer to this question.

... And what about the congenitally insufficient organ­isms, whom our medicine and our social services now preserve so that they may propagate their kind? To help the unfortunate is obviously good. But the whole­sale transmission to our descendants of the results of unfavorable mutations, and the progressive contamina­tion of the genetic pool from which the members of our species will have to draw, are no less obviously bad. We are on the horns of an ethical dilemma, and to find the middle way will require all our intelligence and all our good will.

Struggles at Yale

I used to eat at Silliman College (one of Yale's residential colleges) with other physics professors, mainly because it was the closest cafeteria where we could get a free lunch. The free lunches were meant to encourage us to mingle with undergraduates at the college. But I was one of few professors that actually enjoyed talking to the students -- most preferred to sit at tables with colleagues.

In all of my trips through the ornate gates into the beautiful courtyard, I never witnessed an incident like this one, between the Master of Silliman (a resident faculty member who runs the college) and a student protestor. What is all the fuss about? An email exchange over the extent to which Yale should regulate Halloween costumes (!) in order to protect sensitivities.

More details from the Washington Post and Slate. For discussion of the broader issue -- suppression of open debate on campus due to political correctness -- see this article by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff.
The Atlantic: In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education ...

Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. ... In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke. ...
Of course, one is reminded of struggle sessions during the Cultural Revolution in China.

I'm a Liberal Professor and the current atmosphere on some campuses disturbs me. College is absolutely about exposure to a diversity of viewpoints, together with rational examination and open debate.

Obama on political correctness:
... I’ve heard some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. I gotta tell you, I don’t agree with that either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view. I think you should be able to — anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with ‘em. But you shouldn’t silence them by saying, "You can’t come because I'm too sensitive to hear what you have to say." That’s not the way we learn ...

Monday, November 02, 2015

Houellebecq on Tocqueville, Democracy, and Nietzsche

I prefer good literary criticism.

But this is not it:

Beyond some trivialities, the discussants make no progress toward the question that fascinates all of them: what is Michel Houellebecq really thinking? But they cannot conceive it because their conditioning is so strong that the thoughts cannot enter their minds. (Note that, in its favor, the panel includes Soumission translator Lorin Stein.)

Much better, and shorter, this video of Houellebecq on Tocqueville, Democracy, and Nietzsche.

Tocqueville (Democracy in America, chapter 6): ... It would seem that if despotism were to be established among the democratic nations of our days, it might assume a different character; it would be more extensive and more mild; it would degrade men without tormenting them. I do not question that, in an age of instruction and equality like our own, sovereigns might more easily succeed in collecting all political power into their own hands and might interfere more habitually and decidedly with the circle of private interests than any sovereign of antiquity could ever do. But this same principle of equality which facilitates despotism tempers its rigor. ...

Democratic governments may become violent and even cruel at certain periods of extreme effervescence or of great danger, but these crises will be rare and brief. ... I have no fear that they will meet with tyrants in their rulers, but rather with guardians.1

I think, then, that the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything that ever before existed in the world; our contemporaries will find no prototype of it in their memories. I seek in vain for an expression that will accurately convey the whole of the idea I have formed of it; the old words despotism and tyranny are inappropriate: the thing itself is new, and since I cannot name, I must attempt to define it.

I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but he does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country.

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living? ...

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind which I have just described might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people.

Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions: they want to be led, and they wish to remain free. As they cannot destroy either the one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people. They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians. Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large who hold the end of his chain.

By this system the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master and then relapse into it again. ...
See also Neoreaction and the Dark Enlightenment.

Update: Kudos to Ross Douthat of the NYTimes, who is way ahead of the NYU panelists.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

David Donoho interview at HKUST

A long interview with Stanford professor David Donoho (academic web page) at the IAS at HKUST.

Donoho was a pioneer in thinking about sparsity in high dimensional statistical problems. The motivation for this came from real world problems in geosciences (oil exploration), encountered in Texas when he was still a student. Geophysicists were using Compressed Sensing long before the rigorous mathematical basis was established.

The figure below, from the earlier post Compressed Sensing and Genomes, exhibits the Donoho-Tanner phase transition.
For more discussion of our recent paper The human genome as a compressed sensor, see this blog post by my collaborator Carson Chow and another on the machine learning blog Nuit Blanche. One of our main points in the paper is that the phase transition between the regimes of poor and good recovery of the L1 penalized algorithm (LASSO) is readily detectable, and that the scaling behavior of the phase boundary allows theoretical estimates for the necessary amount of data required for good performance at a given sparsity. Apparently, this reasoning has appeared before in the compressed sensing literature, and has been used to optimize hardware designs for sensors. In our case, the sensor is the human genome, and its statistical properties are fixed. Fortunately, we find that genotype matrices are in the same universality class as random matrices, which are good compressed sensors.

The black line in the figure below is the theoretical prediction (Donoho 2006) for the location of the phase boundary. The shading shows results from our simulations. The scale on the right is L2 (norm squared) error in the recovered effects vector compared to the actual effects.

From Donoho's autobiographical sketch, provided for the Shaw Prize:
During 2004-2010, Jared Tanner and I discovered the precise tradeoff between sparsity and undersampling, showing when L1-minimization can work successfully with random measurements. Our work developed the combinatorial geometry of sparse solutions to underdetermined systems, a beautiful subject involving random high-dimensional polytopes. What my whole life I thought of privately as ‘non-classical’ mathematics was absorbed into classical high-dimensional convex geometry. [ Discussed at ~ 1:38 in the video. ]
More about John Tukey, Donoho's undergraduate advisor at Princeton.

Dollar Empire

This speech emphasizes an under-recognized motivation for US adventurism abroad: local military and geopolitical conflicts enhance the strength of the US dollar as a reserve currency in the face of global volatility. The essay is long but worth reading as it gives a fresh look at superpower competition across multiple arenas, and some insight into the Chinese worldview. However, I think the general overestimates the level of long term thinking and financial-economic-geopolitical-military coordination within US leadership.
One Belt, One Road

General Qiao Liang's speech, which we've been allowed to publish, was delivered at the University of Defense, China’s top military school. It casts a light on China’s new strategic thinking.  
... the August 15, 1971 decoupling of dollar and gold. Since then, humanity saw the emergence of a financial empire, and this financial empire took all of the humanity race into its financial system. In fact, the so-called dollar leadership began at this moment. Today it is about 40 years old. After that day, we entered into an era of real paper notes, but behind the dollar there is no longer a precious metal—it uses entirely the government's credibility and support from all over the world to gain profits. Simply put, the Americans can use a piece of printed green paper to get physical wealth from all over the world. We never had such a thing in human history. There were a lot of ways to make profits in human history, sometimes with money exchange, sometimes by using gold or silver; at other times countries used war to gain plunders, but the cost of war remained enormous. But after the appearance of the dollar as simply a green paper, the cost-benefit ratio for the United States we can say became extremely low.

... The reason is very simple. Because in order to control the world, the United States needs the world to use dollars. In order to let the world use dollars, the Americans made a very clever move in 1973: they linked the dollar and oil by forcing the leading OPEC country, Saudi Arabia, to conduct its global oil transactions in dollars. If you understand that global oil transactions are in US dollars, you can understand why the Americans fight for oil. A direct consequence of war in the oil-producing countries is the surge in oil prices, and a surge in oil prices means that the demand for dollars increases. Before the war, for example, if you had $38, in theory, you can buy a barrel of oil from an oil company. With the war, oil prices have more than quadrupled, reaching $149. So, $38 is only enough to buy a quarter of a barrel of oil, and for the remaining 3/4 of the barrel you are short more than 100 dollars. What to do then? You can only go to the Americans with your own products and resources and hand them out in return for American dollars. And then the US government can confidently, openly, and justifiably print dollars. It is through war—war against the oil-producing countries, creating high oil prices—that the US creates a high demand for dollars.

The American war in Iraq had more than just one goal. It was also about maintaining the dollar leadership. Why then did George W. Bush insist on war in Iraq? Now we can very clearly that Saddam did not support terrorism or al-Qaeda, nor did he weapons of mass destruction—why was Saddam finally brought to the gallows? Because Saddam thought himself smart, and played with fire with superpowers. At the official launch of the euro in 1999, Saddam Hussein seized the opportunity to play with fire between the dollar and the euro—the United States and the European Union—and he could not wait to announce that the Iraqi oil transactions would occur in euros. This is what angered the Americans, in particular, it produced a chain reaction. Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, also announced the settlement of their country's oil exports would be in euros. Was this not a stab in American backs? Some people think it is too far-fetched to say that after this war in Iraq was mandatory. Then please take a look at this: what did the Americans do after winning Iraq? Even before seizing Saddam, the Americans set up an Iraqi interim government whose first decree was to declare Iraqi oil exports would be accounted in dollars and not in euros. That's why Americans are fighting for dollars.

... On last year's "double 11" [November 11, Chinese Valentine day], online shopping reached 50.7 billion yuan in a day for Alibaba's Taobao. Over the three days after the Thanksgiving holiday, US online and on-the-ground store sales had a total equivalent to 40.7 billion yuan, less than Alibaba sales in one day. And China was not even counting Netease, Tencent, Jingdong, or revenue from malls. This means that a new era has already arrived, while the American reaction is still slow. Alibaba deals were all made directly with Alipay. What does direct pay mean? It means that the currency is already out of the transaction stage, and the American leadership is built on the dollar. What is the dollar? It is a currency. In the future, when we no longer use money, traditional money settlement will become useless. When money becomes useless, will an empire built on money still exist? That is the question to be considered by the Americans.

Major General Smedley Darlington Butler (USMC), author of War is a Racket:
WAR is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small 'inside' group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many.

I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Genetic group differences in height and recent human evolution

These recent Nature Genetics papers offer more evidence that group differences in a complex polygenic trait (height), governed by thousands of causal variants, can arise over a relatively short time (~ 10k years) as a result of natural selection (differential response to varying local conditions). One can reach this conclusion well before most of the causal variants have been accounted for, because the frequency differences are found across almost all variants (natural selection affects all of them). Note the first sentence above contradicts many silly things (drift over selection, genetic uniformity of all human subpopulations due to insufficient time for selection, etc.) asserted by supposed experts on evolution, genetics, human biology, etc. over the last 50+ years. The science of human evolution has progressed remarkably in just the last 5 years, thanks mainly to advances in genomic technology.

Cognitive ability is similar to height in many respects, so this type of analysis should be possible in the near future.

See discussion in earlier posts:
Height, breeding values and selection
Recent human evolution: European height
Eight thousand years of natural selection in Europe
No genomic dark matter
Population genetic differentiation of height and body mass index across Europe

Nature Genetics 47, 1357–1362 (2015) doi:10.1038/ng.3401

Across-nation differences in the mean values for complex traits are common1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, but the reasons for these differences are unknown. Here we find that many independent loci contribute to population genetic differences in height and body mass index (BMI) in 9,416 individuals across 14 European countries. Using discovery data on over 250,000 individuals and unbiased effect size estimates from 17,500 sibling pairs, we estimate that 24% (95% credible interval (CI) = 9%, 41%) and 8% (95% CI = 4%, 16%) of the captured additive genetic variance for height and BMI, respectively, reflect population genetic differences. Population genetic divergence differed significantly from that in a null model (height, P < 3.94 × 10−8; BMI, P < 5.95 × 10−4), and we find an among-population genetic correlation for tall and slender individuals (r = −0.80, 95% CI = −0.95, −0.60), consistent with correlated selection for both phenotypes. Observed differences in height among populations reflected the predicted genetic means (r = 0.51; P < 0.001), but environmental differences across Europe masked genetic differentiation for BMI (P < 0.58).

Height-reducing variants and selection for short stature in Sardinia

Nature Genetics 47, 1352–1356 (2015) doi:10.1038/ng.3403 
We report sequencing-based whole-genome association analyses to evaluate the impact of rare and founder variants on stature in 6,307 individuals on the island of Sardinia. We identify two variants with large effects. One variant, which introduces a stop codon in the GHR gene, is relatively frequent in Sardinia (0.87% versus <0.01% elsewhere) and in the homozygous state causes Laron syndrome involving short stature. We find that this variant reduces height in heterozygotes by an average of 4.2 cm (−0.64 s.d.). The other variant, in the imprinted KCNQ1 gene (minor allele frequency (MAF) = 7.7% in Sardinia versus <1% elsewhere) reduces height by an average of 1.83 cm (−0.31 s.d.) when maternally inherited. Additionally, polygenic scores indicate that known height-decreasing alleles are at systematically higher frequencies in Sardinians than would be expected by genetic drift. The findings are consistent with selection for shorter stature in Sardinia and a suggestive human example of the proposed 'island effect' reducing the size of large mammals.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Where men are men, and giants walk the earth

In this earlier post I advocated for cognitive filtering via study of hard subjects
Thought experiment for physicists: imagine a professor throwing copies of Jackson's Classical Electrodynamics at a group of students with the order, "Work out the last problem in each chapter and hand in your solutions to me on Monday!" I suspect that this exercise produces a highly useful rank ordering within the group, with huge differences in number of correct solutions.
In response, a Caltech friend of mine (Page '87, MIT PhD in Physics) sent this old article from the Caltech News. It describes Professor William Smythe and his infamous course on electromagnetism, which was designed to "weed out weaklings"! The article lists six students who survived Smythe's course and went on to win the Nobel prize in Physics. (Click for larger version.)

Vernon Smith, a "weakling" who deliberately avoided the course, went on to win a Nobel prize in Economics. Smith wrote
The first thing to which one has to adapt is the fact that no matter how high people might sample in the right tail of the distribution for "intelligence," ... that sample is still normally distributed in performing on the materials in the Caltech curriculum.
I remind the reader of the Page House motto: Where men are men, and giants walk the earth :-)

See also Colleges ranked by Nobel, Fields, Turing and National Academies output.

Note added: The article mentions George Trilling, a professor at Berkeley I knew in graduate school. I once wrote an electrodynamics solution set for him, and was surprised that he had the temerity to complain about one of my solutions 8-)

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Drone invasion

I bought one of these today for the kids -- their 10th birthday is coming up. Very fun to fly -- reminds me a bit of flying kites when I was a kid. At one point it got away from us and ended up across the street in a neighbor's tree -- the dreaded kite eating tree :-)

See also Drone Art.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

W-2's don't lie

These numbers are derived from aggregate W-2 incomes for 158 million working Americans (see link for full table).
The "raw" average wage, computed as net compensation divided by the number of wage earners, is $7,050,259,213,644.55 divided by 158,186,786, or $44,569.20. Based on data in the table below, about 67.2 percent of wage earners had net compensation less than or equal to the $44,569.20 raw average wage. By definition, 50 percent of wage earners had net compensation less than or equal to the median wage, which is estimated to be $28,851.21 for 2014.
Some rough earnings thresholds by percentile: 90th ~ $95k , 95th ~ $125k , 99th ~ $275k , 99.9th ~ $900k , 99.99th ~ $3.5M.

The Tragedy of Great Power Politics?

Both sides of this issue are well argued in the debate -- in particular by opponents John Mearsheimer and Kevin Rudd. See also The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.

Fear Not!

For relentless technological advance, powered by high g researchers, venture capitalists, capital markets, and government investment in basic research, continues to deliver a cornucopia of benefits to the average joe.

(Note, however, that Moore's Law itself has stalled out recently ...)

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

BBC interview with Robert Plomin

I recommend this BBC interview with Robert Plomin. Robert is a consummate gentleman and scholar, working in a field that inevitably attracts controversy. (Via Dominic Cummings.)
Professor Robert Plomin talks to Jim Al-Khalili about what makes some people smarter than others and why he's fed up with the genetics of intelligence being ignored. Born and raised in Chicago, Robert sat countless intelligence tests at his inner city Catholic school. College was an attractive option mainly because it seemed to pay well. Now he's one of the most cited psychologists in the world. He specialized in behavioural genetics in the mid seventies when the focus in mainstream psychology was very much on our nurture rather than our nature, and genetics was virtually taboo. But he persisted, conducting several large adoption studies and later twin studies. In 1995 he launched the biggest longitudinal twin study in the UK, the TED study of ten thousand pairs of twins which continues to this day. In this study and in his other work, he's shown consistently that genetic influences on intelligence are highly significant, much more so than what school you go to, your teachers or home environment. If only the genetic differences between children were fully acknowledged, he believes education could be transformed and parents might stop giving themselves such a hard time.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Men Are Easy

@9 min: 26 million matches per day on Tinder. Male preferences easy to predict, females more complex! Linear vs Multivariate Nonlinear preferences? Calling Geoffrey Miller ...

Some data from OKcupid:

Global Impact Initiative

MSU will be hiring over 100 new professors (beyond ordinary hiring such as retirement replacements), primarily in science and technology areas that address key global challenges. Priority areas include Computation, Advanced Engineering, Genomics, Plant Sciences, Food/Environment, Precision Medicine, and Advanced Physical Sciences. MSU total funding from the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation ranks in the top 10 among US universities.

Proximate to my own field of theoretical physics, we intend to build one of the best lattice QCD groups in the US. I predict that in the coming decade lattice QCD applied to low-energy nuclear physics will allow first-principles (starting from the level of quarks and gluons) calculations of important dynamical quantities in nuclear physics, such as scattering amplitudes and reaction rates. For the first time, strongly coupled nuclear systems will become amenable to direct computation using the quantum field theory of quarks and gluons.
Three faculty positions in Lattice Quantum Chromodynamics

The Department of Physics & Astronomy (PA), National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (NSCL), and a new department of Computational Math Science and Engineering (CMSE) invite applications from outstanding candidates for three faculty positions at Michigan State University in the area of computational Lattice Quantum Chromodynamics (LQCD). We anticipate filling one or more of the positions at a senior level with tenure. We are looking for candidates with an excellent record in applying large-scale computing to solving cutting-edge scientific problems in the domains of nuclear physics (relevant to the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams) and high energy physics. We expect that the three hires will work together to establish an internationally prominent and well-funded activity in LQCD and its applications to high energy and nuclear physics. These positions are part of a committed multi-year effort to build the computational sciences programs at Michigan State University. Each position will be a joint appointment between the new CMSE department and PA/NSCL. Faculty will have a primary appointment in one of the three participating units (PA, NSCL, CMSE), and we anticipate one appointment in each of these units. In addition to developing a world-leading research group with strong disciplinary and interdisciplinary collaborations, the new faculty members are expected to contribute to the development of an innovative curriculum in computational sciences, at both the graduate and undergraduate levels.

BTW, I almost cried when I saw this happen! Go Green!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Mein Krieg: time and memory

The footage in this documentary will appeal to any History or WWII buff. The interviews with the old men, juxtaposed with moving images of their wartime youth, are a poignant meditation on time and memory.
Mein Krieg (1991)
Review/Film; Movies Shot By 6 Germans In the War


The documentary "Mein Krieg" ("My Private War") offers stunningly un-self-conscious World War II memories from six German veterans, each of whom took a home movie camera with him into the fray. As directed with chilling simplicity by Harriet Eder and Thomas Kufus, it presents both a compilation of eerie wartime scenes and a catalogue of the photographers' present-day attitudes toward their experience. "I wouldn't be talking about these things if my conscience weren't clear as crystal," one of them calmly declares.

The film makers have their own ideas about their interviewees' complicity, as demonstrated by the emphasis they place on that particular remark. But their approach is restrained as they allow each of these six veterans to reminisce about everything from the condition of their movie cameras (which are well maintained and have yielded high-quality home movies) to the indelible sights they have seen. "Here we're going into Warsaw, and this is a tour of the buildings destroyed in '39," one man says, casually describing his images of wholesale destruction.

Much of the material seen here has a peculiar gentleness, as German soldiers cook and exercise and smile for the cameras. (There do not appear to have been restrictions on what the soldiers could photograph, since the later part of the film also includes glimpses of mass graves and civilian casualties.) And some of it recalls the more calculated wartime images we are more used to seeing in connection with Allied troops. So pretty nurses beam at Nazi soldiers; the soldiers' faces betray both fear and determination; the troops are seen celebrating after they shoot down an enemy plane. They were, a photographer recalls about the plane's dead Russian pilot, "full of joy over having been able to destroy this hornet." ...

Monday, October 12, 2015

Neoreaction and the Dark Enlightenment

An essay on neoreaction and the dark enlightenment from The Awl.

See also Fukuyama and Zhang on the China Model , Is there a China model? and Power and paranoia in Silicon Valley.
The Darkness Before the Right

A right-wing politics for the coming century is taking shape. And it’s not slowing down.

... Land’s case for democratic dysfunction is simply stated. Democracy is structurally incapable of rational leadership due to perverse incentive structures. It is trapped in short-termism by the electoral cycle, hard decisions become political suicide, and social catastrophe is acceptable as long as it can be blamed on the other team. Moreover, inter-party competition to “buy votes” leads to a ratchet effect of ever-greater state intervention in the economy—and even if this is periodically reversed, in the long-run it only moves in one direction. ... Rather than accept creeping democratic socialism (which leads to “zombie apocalypse”), Land would prefer to simply abolish democracy and appoint a national CEO. This capitalist Leviathan would be, at a bare minimum, capable of rational long-term planning and aligning individual incentive structures with social well-being (CEO-as-Tiger-Mom). Individuals would have no say in government, but would be generally left alone, and free to leave. This right of “exit” is, for Land, the only meaningful right, and it’s opposed to democratic “voice,” where everyone gets a say, but is bound by the decisions of the majority—the fear being that the majority will decide to self-immolate.

Anti-democratic sentiment is uncommon in the West, so Land’s conclusions appear as shocking, deliberate provocations, which they partly are. ... Pointing to Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, it argues that economically and socially effective government legitimizes itself, with no need for elections. And this view isn’t limited to the internet right. ...

This brand of authoritarian capitalism has a certain fascist sheen, but in truth it’s closer to a rigidly formalized capitalist technocracy. There’s no mass mobilization, totalitarian social reorganization, or cult of violence here; governing will be done by the governors, and popular sovereignty replaced by the market Mandate of Heaven. There is a strange sort of disillusioned cultural conservatism here as well, albeit one absolutely stripped of moralism. In fact, what’s genuinely creepy about it is the near-sociopathic lack of emotional attachment; it’s a sort of pure incentive-based functionalism, as if from the perspective of a computer or alien. If a person doesn’t produce quantifiable value, they are, objectively, not valuable. Everything else is sentimentality.


Capitalism, in this view, is less something we do than something done to us. Contra business-class bromides about the market as the site of creative expression, for Land, as for Marx, capitalism is a fundamentally alien institution in which “the means of production socially impose themselves as an effective imperative.” This means simply that the competitive dynamics of capitalism drive technical progress as an iron law. If one capitalist doesn’t want to build smarter, better machines, he’ll be out-competed by one who does. If Apple doesn’t make you an asshole, Google will. If America doesn’t breed genetically modified super-babies, China will. The market doesn’t run on “greed,” or any intentionality at all. Its beauty—or horror—is its impersonality. Either you adapt, or you die.

Accelerating technological growth, then, is written into capitalism’s DNA. Smart machines make us smarter allowing us to make smarter machines, in a positive feedback loop that quickly begins to approach infinity, better known in this context as “singularity.” ...
Somehow I ended up on this "map of neoreaction" -- without my consent, of course. Who are all these people? ;-)

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Additivity in yeast quantitative traits

A new paper from the Kruglyak lab at UCLA shows yet again (this time in yeast) that population variation in quantitative traits tends to be dominated by additive effects. There are deep evolutionary reasons for this to be the case -- see excerpt below (at bottom of this post). For other examples, including humans, mice, chickens, cows, plants, see links here.
Genetic interactions contribute less than additive effects to quantitative trait variation in yeast (

Genetic mapping studies of quantitative traits typically focus on detecting loci that contribute additively to trait variation. Genetic interactions are often proposed as a contributing factor to trait variation, but the relative contribution of interactions to trait variation is a subject of debate. Here, we use a very large cross between two yeast strains to accurately estimate the fraction of phenotypic variance due to pairwise QTLQTL interactions for 20 quantitative traits. We find that this fraction is 9% on average, substantially less than the contribution of additive QTL (43%). Statistically significant QTL-QTL pairs typically have small individual effect sizes, but collectively explain 40% of the pairwise interaction variance. We show that pairwise interaction variance is largely explained by pairs of loci at least one of which has a significant additive effect. These results refine our understanding of the genetic architecture of quantitative traits and help guide future mapping studies.

Genetic interactions arise when the joint effect of alleles at two or more loci on a phenotype departs from simply adding up the effects of the alleles at each locus. Many examples of such interactions are known, but the relative contribution of interactions to trait variation is a subject of debate1–5. We previously generated a panel of 1,008 recombinant offspring (“segregants”) from a cross between two strains of yeast: a widely used laboratory strain (BY) and an isolate from a vineyard (RM)6. Using this panel, we estimated the contribution of additive genetic factors to phenotypic variation (narrow-sense or additive heritability) for 46 traits and resolved nearly all of this contribution (on average 87%) to specific genome-wide-significant quantitative trait loci (QTL). ...

We detected nearly 800 significant additive QTL. We were able to refine the location of the QTL explaining at least 1% of trait variance to approximately 10 kb, and we resolved 31 QTL to single genes. We also detected over 200 significant QTL-QTL interactions; in most cases, one or both of the loci also had significant additive effects. For most traits studied, we detected one or a few additive QTL of large effect, plus many QTL and QTL-QTL interactions of small effect. We find that the contribution of QTL-QTL interactions to phenotypic variance is typically less than a quarter of the contribution of additive effects. These results provide a picture of the genetic contributions to quantitative traits at an unprecedented resolution.

... One can test for interactions either between all pairs of markers (full scan), or only between pairs where one marker corresponds to a significant additive QTL (marginal scan). In principle, the former can detect a wider range of interactions, but the latter can have higher power due to a reduced search space. Here, the two approaches yielded similar results, detecting 205 and 266 QTL-QTL interactions, respectively, at an FDR of 10%, with 172 interactions detected by both approaches. In the full scan, 153 of the QTL-QTL interactions correspond to cases where both interacting loci are also significant additive QTL, 36 correspond to cases where one of the loci is a significant additive QTL, and only 16 correspond to cases where neither locus is a significant additive QTL.
For related discussion of nonlinear genetic models, see here:
It is a common belief in genomics that nonlinear interactions (epistasis) in complex traits make the task of reconstructing genetic models extremely difficult, if not impossible. In fact, it is often suggested that overcoming nonlinearity will require much larger data sets and significantly more computing power. Our results show that in broad classes of plausibly realistic models, this is not the case.
Determination of Nonlinear Genetic Architecture using Compressed Sensing (arXiv:1408.6583)
Chiu Man Ho, Stephen D.H. Hsu
Subjects: Genomics (q-bio.GN); Applications (stat.AP)

We introduce a statistical method that can reconstruct nonlinear genetic models (i.e., including epistasis, or gene-gene interactions) from phenotype-genotype (GWAS) data. The computational and data resource requirements are similar to those necessary for reconstruction of linear genetic models (or identification of gene-trait associations), assuming a condition of generalized sparsity, which limits the total number of gene-gene interactions. An example of a sparse nonlinear model is one in which a typical locus interacts with several or even many others, but only a small subset of all possible interactions exist. It seems plausible that most genetic architectures fall in this category. Our method uses a generalization of compressed sensing (L1-penalized regression) applied to nonlinear functions of the sensing matrix. We give theoretical arguments suggesting that the method is nearly optimal in performance, and demonstrate its effectiveness on broad classes of nonlinear genetic models using both real and simulated human genomes.
I've discussed additivity many times previously, so I'll just quote below from Additivity and complex traits in mice:
You may have noticed that I am gradually collecting copious evidence for (approximate) additivity. Far too many scientists and quasi-scientists are infected by the epistasis or epigenetics meme, which is appealing to those who "revel in complexity" and would like to believe that biology is too complex to succumb to equations. ...

I sometimes explain things this way:

There is a deep evolutionary reason behind additivity: nonlinear mechanisms are fragile and often "break" due to DNA recombination in sexual reproduction. Effects which are only controlled by a single locus are more robustly passed on to offspring. ...

Many people confuse the following statements:

"The brain is complex and nonlinear and many genes interact in its construction and operation."

"Differences in brain performance between two individuals of the same species must be due to nonlinear (non-additive) effects of genes."

The first statement is true, but the second does not appear to be true across a range of species and quantitative traits. On the genetic architecture of intelligence and other quantitative traits (p.16):
... The preceding discussion is not intended to convey an overly simplistic view of genetics or systems biology. Complex nonlinear genetic systems certainly exist and are realized in every organism. However, quantitative differences between individuals within a species may be largely due to independent linear effects of specific genetic variants. As noted, linear effects are the most readily evolvable in response to selection, whereas nonlinear gadgets are more likely to be fragile to small changes. (Evolutionary adaptations requiring significant changes to nonlinear gadgets are improbable and therefore require exponentially more time than simple adjustment of frequencies of alleles of linear effect.) One might say that, to first approximation, Biology = linear combinations of nonlinear gadgets, and most of the variation between individuals is in the (linear) way gadgets are combined, rather than in the realization of different gadgets in different individuals.

Linear models work well in practice, allowing, for example, SNP-based prediction of quantitative traits (milk yield, fat and protein content, productive life, etc.) in dairy cattle. ...
See also Explain it to me like I'm five years old.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

"1-bit" Compressed Sensing and Genetic Disease

This is an ASHG poster (click for larger version) describing work on predictive modeling of genetic disease using Compressed Sensing. Our previous work dealt with continuous traits (quantitative phenotypes). In the case of disease, one sometimes only has binary data to work with: individuals in the sample are either cases (have the condition) or controls (do not have the condition). Their underlying genetic susceptibility to the condition is not directly measurable. However, sophisticated techniques can use even this type of data to deduce the underlying genetic architecture. As in our earlier work, we demonstrate a "phase transition" in the performance of our algorithms as the amount of data available increases.

See related posts on quantitative traits: linear models 2, linear models, nonlinear method, and this talk: Genetic architecture and predictive modeling of quantitative traits.

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