Saturday, August 31, 2013

Another species, an evolution beyond man

Readers might be interested in this interview I did, which is on the MIRI (Machine Intelligence Research Institute, in Berkeley) website. Some excerpts below.
... I think there is good evidence that existing genetic variants in the human population (i.e., alleles affecting intelligence that are found today in the collective world population, but not necessarily in a single person) can be combined to produce a phenotype which is far beyond anything yet seen in human history. This would not surprise an animal or plant breeder — experiments on corn, cows, chickens, drosophila, etc. have shifted population means by many standard deviations (e.g., +30 SD in the case of corn).

... I think we already have some hints in this direction. Take the case of John von Neumann, widely regarded as one of the greatest intellects in the 20th century, and a famous polymath. He made fundamental contributions in mathematics, physics, nuclear weapons research, computer architecture, game theory and automata theory.

In addition to his abstract reasoning ability, von Neumann had formidable powers of mental calculation and a photographic memory. In my opinion, genotypes exist that correspond to phenotypes as far beyond von Neumann as he was beyond a normal human.

I have known a great many intelligent people in my life. I knew Planck, von Laue and Heisenberg. Paul Dirac was my brother in law; Leo Szilard and Edward Teller have been among my closest friends; and Albert Einstein was a good friend, too. But none of them had a mind as quick and acute as Jansci [John] von Neumann. I have often remarked this in the presence of those men and no one ever disputed me. – Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner

You know, Herb, how much faster I am in thinking than you are. That is how much faster von Neumann is compared to me. – Nobel Laureate Enrico Fermi to his former PhD student Herb Anderson.

One of his remarkable abilities was his power of absolute recall. As far as I could tell, von Neumann was able on once reading a book or article to quote it back verbatim; moreover, he could do it years later without hesitation. He could also translate it at no diminution in speed from its original language into English. On one occasion I tested his ability by asking him to tell me how The Tale of Two Cities started. Whereupon, without any pause, he immediately began to recite the first chapter and continued until asked to stop after about ten or fifteen minutes. – Herman Goldstine, mathematician and computer pioneer.

I always thought Von Neumann’s brain indicated that he was from another species, an evolution beyond man. – Nobel Laureate Hans A. Bethe.

The quantitative argument for why there are many SD's to be had from tuning genotypes is so simple that I'll summarize it here (see also, e.g., here or here).  Suppose variation in cognitive ability is

1. highly polygenic (i.e., controlled by N loci, where N is large; N is almost certainly more than 1k -- perhaps roughly 10k), and

2. approximately linear (note the additive heritability of g is larger than the non-additive part).

Then the population SD for the trait corresponds to an excess of roughly Sqrt(N) positive alleles. A genius like vN might be +6 SD, so would have roughly 6 Sqrt(N) more positive alleles than the average person (e.g., 200 extra positive alleles if N = 1000). But there are roughly +Sqrt(N) SDs in phenotype to be had by an individual who has essentially all of the N positive alleles. As long as Sqrt(N) >> 6, there is ample extant variation for selection to act on to produce a type superior to any that has existed before. (The probability of producing a "maximal type" through random breeding is ~ exp( - N), and for large N the historical human population is insufficient to have made this likely.)

This basic calculation underlies the work of animal and plant breeders, who have in many cases (corn, drosophila, cows, dogs) moved the "wild type" population by many SD through selection. See, e.g., this essay by famed geneticist James Crow of Wisconsin.

Genetic architecture of schizophrenia and related psychiatric disorders

This recent paper estimates that 10k common SNPs account for most of the heritability of schizophrenia. I'd guess there are some rare variants of large effect around as well. Where have I seen numbers like 10k causal variants (see also here) before? Just a few years ago, those were crazy numbers.
Genome-wide association analysis identifies 13 new risk loci for schizophrenia (Nature Genetics)

Schizophrenia is an idiopathic mental disorder with a heritable component and a substantial public health impact. We conducted a multi-stage genome-wide association study (GWAS) for schizophrenia beginning with a Swedish national sample (5,001 cases and 6,243 controls) followed by meta-analysis with previous schizophrenia GWAS (8,832 cases and 12,067 controls) and finally by replication of SNPs in 168 genomic regions in independent samples (7,413 cases, 19,762 controls and 581 parent-offspring trios). We identified 22 loci associated at genome-wide significance; 13 of these are new, and 1 was previously implicated in bipolar disorder. Examination of candidate genes at these loci suggests the involvement of neuronal calcium signaling. We estimate that 8,300 independent, mostly common SNPs (95% credible interval of 6,300–10,200 SNPs) contribute to risk for schizophrenia and that these collectively account for at least 32% of the variance in liability. Common genetic variation has an important role in the etiology of schizophrenia, and larger studies will allow more detailed understanding of this disorder.

Also of interest:
Genetic relationship between five psychiatric disorders estimated from genome-wide SNPs (Nature Genetics)

Most psychiatric disorders are moderately to highly heritable. The degree to which genetic variation is unique to individual disorders or shared across disorders is unclear. To examine shared genetic etiology, we use genome-wide genotype data from the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium (PGC) for cases and controls in schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). We apply univariate and bivariate methods for the estimation of genetic variation within and covariation between disorders. SNPs explained 17–29% of the variance in liability. The genetic correlation calculated using common SNPs was high between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (0.68 ± 0.04 s.e.), moderate between schizophrenia and major depressive disorder (0.43 ± 0.06 s.e.), bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder (0.47 ± 0.06 s.e.), and ADHD and major depressive disorder (0.32 ± 0.07 s.e.), low between schizophrenia and ASD (0.16 ± 0.06 s.e.) and non-significant for other pairs of disorders as well as between psychiatric disorders and the negative control of Crohn's disease. This empirical evidence of shared genetic etiology for psychiatric disorders can inform nosology and encourages the investigation of common pathophysiologies for related disorders.

"Hadoop wildly overhyped" and other database arcana

Michael Stonebreaker talk on the current state of database architecture and technology, entitled The Traditional RDBMS Wisdom is (Almost Certainly) All Wrong. This field was pretty dead for a long time, but big changes are afoot now. Readers might be familiar with Streambase, one of his startups.

A friend summarizes the talk as follows
1. Relational databases are going through large transformations (not just as a threat from the non relational no-sql DBs, but the internal model that Oracle, MySQL itself use is breaking apart and need to be rewritten).

2. The current relational model has effectively already broken apart into two solutions (in large companies)- Huge datasets for after the fact statistical analysis (ie- Walmart trying to analyze a recent sale, etc) have already moved over to column grouped data (as opposed to row records), which lets you stream through a given column of data quickly. Real time data on the other hand, is kept at the terabyte range, and the whole database is loaded into memory. Although this speeds up things significantly, the next bottlenecks appear around thread locking, etc- Fixing this is an area of current research, but the speedup gains are ultimately orders of magnitude faster than the old relational database model, and so will probably all change soon.

3. The speaker described Hadoop as being terrible at everything except embarrassingly parallel multi machine computations. He mentioned that Google itself doesn't use mapreduce anymore and is probably amused at all the attention that it is getting in the world.

There were some other interesting points in the talk, but the main takeaway is that we probably are in for some huge changes in the next decade.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Factorization of unitarity and black hole firewalls
Factorization of unitarity and black hole firewalls
Stephen D.H. Hsu

Unitary black hole evaporation necessarily involves a late-time superposition
of decoherent states, including states describing distinct spacetimes (e.g.,
different center of mass trajectories of the black hole). Typical analyses of
the black hole information problem, including the argument for the existence of
firewalls, assume approximate unitarity ("factorization of unitarity") on each
of the decoherent spacetimes. This factorization assumption is non-trivial, and
indeed may be incorrect. We describe an ansatz for the radiation state that
violates factorization and which allows unitarity and the equivalence principle
to coexist (no firewall). Unitarity without factorization provides a natural
realization of the idea of black hole complementarity.
From the paper:
... An objection to the importance of macroscopic superpositions to the information problem is that there is much less information in the coarse grained position or even trajectory (sequence of positions) of the black hole than in the radiation. From this perspective one should be able to neglect the superposition of spacetimes and demand approximate unitarity branch by branch -- in other words, impose factorization. Below, we show that the firewall argument depends sensitively on the precision of factorization. Once macroscopic superpositions are taken into account, the required deviation of near-horizon modes from the inertial vacuum state becomes extremely small. ...


The quantum evolution of a complex pure state typically leads to a superposition of decoherent semiclassical states. In the case of black hole evaporation one obtains a superposition of spacetime geometries because the Hawking radiation inevitably exhibits fluctuations in energy and momentum density over different regions. Firewall and information paradoxes result from the non-trivial assumption of factorization: approximate unitarity on each decoherent geometry. Global unitarity is a much weaker condition than factorization. Quantum correlations between geometries can plausibly resolve the information paradoxes, although specific dynamical mechanisms are still not understood.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Heretics in the church: black hole information loss

Bob Wald give a nice talk from the "relativist perspective" at the KITP workshop on firewalls -- see Fri Aug 23 3 PM ; slides. (@36 min things heat up a bit :-)

One of the ideas that he and Bill Unruh have advocated over the years is that decoherence is an example of pure to mixed state evolution that doesn't require catastrophic side-effects like energy non-conservation (Banks, Peskin, Susskind; B-S interchange with Wald @42min :-). For related discussion, see these papers: BHs and spacetime topology, BHs and decoherence and this talk from an earlier KITP workshop by Bill Unruh.

Bob also takes some shots at the church of AdS/CFT, pointing out that the duality is not well-defined and still a conjecture. If AdS/CFT is the strongest argument in favor of purity of BH evaporation, then one should not abandon alternatives just yet ... (@53min some further discussion of this which unfortunately cuts off just as Maldacena is giving an interesting argument!)

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Will to Power

Great bio of former Googler and now Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer. I got sucked in and read the whole thing. Lots of color on life at Google, Yahoo and in SV. Philosophy 160A at Stanford is intro to mathematical logic.
... Mayer credits her teachers for helping her become less shy.

They did this by showing Mayer that she could “organize” more than just her backpack, desk, and homework — that she could organize people, as their leader.

Mayer’s childhood piano teacher, Joanne Beckman, remembers Mayer being very different from other children in that she was someone who “watched people” in order to “figure out why they were doing what they were doing.”

“A lot of kids that age are very interested in themselves,” Beckman says, “She was looking at other people.”

By “looking” at her teachers, figuring out why they were doing what they were doing, Mayer overcame her “painful” shyness with peers by taking on the teacher’s role.

Even when she was in fifth grade, Mr. Flanagan could see the pedagogical side of Mayer developing. He thought she would become a teacher someday.

... In 1993, Mayer applied to, and was accepted into, 10 schools, including Harvard, Yale, Duke, and Northwestern.

To decide which one she would go to, Mayer created a spreadsheet, weighing variables for each.

She picked Stanford. Her plan was to become a brain doctor — a profession that doesn’t draw much on the leadership traits Mayer was quickly developing.

... That summer, Mayer attended the National Youth Science Camp in West Virginia. It was nerd heaven. Picture science labs housed in wooden cabins shaded by trees. Mayer especially loved one experiment where they mixed water and corn starch to make a sloppy goo-like substance that seemed to defy gravity.

One day, a post-doctoral student from Yale named Zune Nguyen spoke to the campers as a guest lecturer. He stunned all the smart kids in the room with puzzles and brainteasers. For days, the campers couldn’t stop talking about his talk.

Finally, one of Mayer’s counselors had enough.

“You know, you have it all wrong,” the counselor said to Mayer and the campers. “It’s not what Zune knows, it’s how Zune thinks.”

The counselor said that what made Nguyen so amazing wasn’t the facts that he knew, but rather how he approached the world and how he thought about problems. The counselor said the most remarkable thing about Nguyen was that you could put him in an entirely new environment or present him with an entirely new problem, and within a matter of minutes he would be asking the right questions and making the right observations.

From that moment on, the phrase: “It’s not what Zune knows, but how Zune thinks,” stuck with Mayer as a sort of personal guiding proverb.

In the fall, Mayer went to Stanford and began taking pre-med classes. She planned to become a doctor. But by the end of her freshman year, she was sick of it.

“I was just doing too many flashcards,” she says. “They were easy for me, but it was just a lot of memorization.”

She says she wanted to find a major “that really made me think” — that would train her to “think critically, and become a great problem-solver.” She also wanted to “study how people think, how they reason, how they express themselves.”

“I had this nagging voice in my head saying ‘It’s not what Zune knows, but how Zune thinks.’”

... So that semester at Stanford was full of all-nighters for Mayer and her Philosophy 160A group.

Mayer ended up in a group that included Josh Elman, now a venture capitalist. Looking back on those study sessions, Elman remembers “times when people in the group were bouncing off the walls.”

He says, “Marissa was always like, ‘OK, back to work. Let’s get this done.’ She was focused on making sure we got the right answer quickly.”

“It felt like she was the smartest student in the room — and the most serious. You always knew those two things about her. Very smart. Very serious.”

The social dynamic of the group was typical for Mayer. As usual, she commanded the room — organized the group’s work in an all-business fashion — but was otherwise shy, and somewhat reclusive.

In the years ahead, this combination — Mayer’s willingness to be authoritative and demanding the way a teacher would, with a “painful” fear or reluctance of being personal — would cause problems for Mayer.

One Stanford classmate interpreted Mayer’s shyness as being “kind of stuck up.”

“She would do her work and then leave. When other people would stay and hang out and have pizza, she’d just be out of there because the work is done.”

Indeed, Mayer doesn’t seem to have had a very active social life in college.

One person who lived in her dorm said she appeared to always be “down to business” and “not much for socializing.”

“She wasn’t one of those people into making new friends around the dorm. She was always doing something more important than just chilling.”

The simplest explanation for Mayer’s social behavior at Stanford remains that Mayer was, as she has said many times, “painfully shy.” ...

Note the geeky laugh and the number of times she says "really smart people" ;-) @24min she talks about her personal strengths and decision strategies.

The work is behind the scenes

... competition is the easy part.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Black hole firewalls and all that

Here's the Times coverage of the so-called "firewall paradox" in black hole physics. For my take on it see this paper and these additional comments. There is a meeting at KITP on this topic taking place starting this week -- see here for talk videos.
NYTimes: ... A high-octane debate has broken out among the world’s physicists about what would happen if you jumped into a black hole, a fearsome gravitational monster that can swallow matter, energy and even light. You would die, of course, but how? Crushed smaller than a dust mote by monstrous gravity, as astronomers and science fiction writers have been telling us for decades? Or flash-fried by a firewall of energy, as an alarming new calculation seems to indicate?

This dire-sounding debate has spawned a profusion of papers, blog posts and workshops over the last year. At stake is not Einstein’s reputation, which is after all secure, or even the efficacy of our iPhones, but perhaps the basis of his general theory of relativity, the theory of gravity, on which our understanding of the universe is based. Or some other fundamental long-established principle of nature might have to be abandoned, but physicists don’t agree on which one, and they have been flip-flopping and changing positions almost weekly, with no resolution in sight.

“I was a yo-yo on this,” said one of the more prolific authors in the field, Leonard Susskind of Stanford. He paused and added, “I haven’t changed my mind in a few months now.”

Raphael Bousso, a theorist at the University of California, Berkeley, said, “I’ve never been so surprised. I don’t know what to expect.”

You might wonder who cares, especially if encountering a black hole is not on your calendar. But some of the basic tenets of modern science and of Einstein’s theory are at stake in the “firewall paradox,” as it is known.

“It points to something missing in our understanding of gravity,” said Joseph Polchinski, of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara, Calif., one of the theorists who set off this confusion. ...
Via Sean Carroll, here are Joe Polchinski's slides from a firewall talk at Caltech.

My claim is that (see slide 29) the b which forms a pure state with b_E is not the same as the b which forms a pure state with b'. The latter b is an excitation relative to the vacuum state of a particular decoherent spacetime (background geometry) whereas the former b is a component of the global radiation state, summing over all spacetimes. The Equivalence Principle (no drama) can only be applied to one geometry at a time, whereas unitarity (purity) only applies to the global state, including all the branches.

If I am correct, then the main benefit from this firewall discussion will be the realization that unitarity only holds after summing over all spacetime geometries of the evaporating black hole. Most theorists seem to think it will hold (at least approximately) on each geometry separately.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Conor McGregor

Love this guy -- especially his attitude and his unorthodox striking style. Very good cage smarts and mental game.

Don't know how he'd do against a good wrestler. So far I'd say he's only fought scrubs. Too early to tell, but right now he's got nothing for fighters like Aldo or Edgar.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Dreams of DNA machines

I'm often asked about the status of the BGI cognitive genomics project. A fairly long article about it appeared in WIRED recently. I have quite a lot of experience with the media from tech startup days, as well as from coverage of my physics and genomics research. My advice is to read everything with a grain of salt. Most journalists have the best intentions, but the complexity of the topics they try to cover makes their task extremely difficult.

While I cannot give a comprehensive update, I can state that
1. Volunteers who qualified for the study via and returned their samples by approximately September 2012 have all been sequenced on the Illumina platform, and will receive updates on the status of their genomic data relatively soon.

2. The relationship between BGI and Illumina has deteriorated since the acquisition of Complete Genomics by the former, which was vigorously opposed (ostensibly on national security grounds, believe it or not) by the latter. Our project has not escaped collateral impact from this development.

In other news, the documentary DNA Dreams (about our project) has won the Film & Science Award and has been selected by various film festivals throughout the world, including in Italy, France, USA and Denmark and the Grand Competition of Pariscience. It has also been acquired by several international broadcasters, including Sweden (SR), Japan (NHK), Germany and France (ARTE). See trailer below.

DNA dreams.

My comments on the documentary from an earlier post:
1. As you might expect, it emphasizes sensational aspects of our research -- genetic engineering, drugs for cognitive enhancement, etc. These are all possibilities, obviously topics we discussed at the behest of the film makers, but of course for now our work is basic research with no near term applications. (Basic research tends to be less interesting to viewers than science fiction extrapolations.)

2. I find the video visually interesting, but at times it emphasizes the alien or sinister. Even the musical background seems chosen for this purpose.

3. Several important members of our team have little or no role in the documentary, despite being interviewed extensively during its making. I suppose the director was limited in what she could include, given the 60 minute format. The young woman who leads the cloning team is not actually part of our group.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The ten second barrier

Pei Meng Zhang -- 10.00 in the 100m in the semis at the IAAF World Championships 2013. Same time as Christophe Lemaitre, who was allowed to advance ahead of Zhang. At 6"1 190 Zhang is pretty big for a sprinter. With his skinny upper body I'm guessing he's clean ;-)

Given the wind reading Zhang has the best performance yet for an Asian, slightly ahead of Koji Ito (also 10.00, 1998). On the world all-time list this is around 100th best among all individuals. Lemaitre is the fastest European, with PR 9.92 (about 35th best). He's a very unusual 6"4 160 (at least according to Wikipedia).

Monday, August 12, 2013


Freeman Dyson reviews the new biography of Oppenheimer by Ray Monk. I discussed the book already here.
NYBooks: ... The subtitle, “A Life Inside the Center,” calls attention to a rarer skill in which Oppenheimer excelled. He had a unique ability to put himself at the places and times at which important things were happening. Four times in his life, he was at the center of important events. In 1926 he was at Göttingen, where his teacher Max Born was one of the leaders of the quantum revolution that transformed our view of the subatomic world. In 1929 he was at Berkeley, where his friend Ernest Lawrence was building the first cyclotron, and with Lawrence he created in Berkeley an American school of sub-atomic physics that took the leadership away from Europe. In 1943 he was at Los Alamos building the first nuclear weapons. In 1947 he was in Washington as chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, giving advice to political and military leaders at the highest levels of government. He was driven by an irresistible ambition to play a leading part in historic events. In each case, when he was present at the center of action, he rose to the occasion and took charge of the situation with unexpected competence.

... In 1939 Oppenheimer published with his student Hartland Snyder a paper, “On Continued Gravitational Contraction,” only four pages long, which is in my opinion Oppenheimer’s one and only revolutionary contribution to science. In that paper, Oppenheimer and Snyder invented the concept of black holes; they proved that every star significantly more massive than the sun must end its life as a black hole, and deduced that black holes must exist as real objects in the sky around us. They showed that Einstein’s theory of general relativity compels any massive star that has exhausted its supply of nuclear fuel to enter a state of permanent free fall. Permanent free fall was a new idea, counterintuitive and profoundly important. It allows a massive star to keep falling permanently into a black hole without ever reaching the bottom.

Einstein never imagined and never accepted this consequence of his theory. Oppenheimer imagined it and accepted it. As a direct result of Oppenheimer’s work, we now know that black holes have played and are playing a decisive part in the evolution of the universe. That is the historical fact. The mystery is Oppenheimer’s failure to grasp the importance of his own discovery. He lived for twenty-seven years after the discovery, never spoke about it, and never came back to work on it. Several times, I asked him why he did not come back to it. He never answered my question, but always changed the conversation to some other subject.

It is true, as Monk demonstrates, that Oppenheimer’s ruling passion was to be a leader in pure science. He considered his excursions into bomb-making and nuclear politics to be temporary interruptions. My interactions with Oppenheimer confirm Monk’s picture of him. I worked at the Institute for Advanced Study for almost twenty years while Oppenheimer was director. He rarely talked about politics and almost never about bombs, but talked incessantly about the latest discoveries and puzzles in pure science.

... Oppenheimer continued for the rest of his life to be proud of his achievement at Los Alamos. ... Monk expresses his opinion, with which I agree, that Oppenheimer’s anger arose from his deep loyalty to America. For him, expressing regret for what he had done for his country would have meant joining his country’s enemies.

... Oppenheimer was above all a good soldier. That is why he worked so well with General Groves, and that is why Groves trusted him. I have a vivid memory of the ice-cold February day in 1967 when we held a memorial service for Oppenheimer at Princeton. Because of the extreme cold, attendance at the service was sparse. But General Groves, old and frail, came all the way from his home to pay his respects to his friend. ...

The real tragedy of Oppenheimer’s life was not the loss of his security clearance but his failure to be a great scientist. For forty years he put his heart and soul into thinking about deep scientific problems. With the single exception of the collapse of massive stars at the end of their lives, he did not solve any of these problems. Why did he not succeed in scientific research as brilliantly as he succeeded in soldiering and administration? I believe the main reason why he failed was a lack of Sitzfleisch. Sitzfleisch is a German word with no equivalent in English. The literal translation is “Sitflesh.” It means the ability to sit still and work quietly. He could never sit still long enough to do a difficult calculation. His calculations were always done hastily and often full of mistakes. In a letter to my parents quoted by Monk, I described Oppenheimer as I saw him in seminars:
He is moving around nervously all the time, never stops smoking, and I believe that his impatience is largely beyond his control.
In addition to his restlessness, Oppenheimer had another quality, emphasized by Monk in the subtitle of his book. He always wanted to be at the center. This quality is good for soldiers and politicians but bad for original thinkers. ...
I have to admit that my own Sitzfleisch, while well above average for a normal person, is probably less than required for true excellence in theoretical physics. (This might have something to do with my being less aspie than the typical theorist ;-)

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Hollywood discovers theoretical physics

Hollywood Reporter: Fox Searchlight has optioned The New York Times feature The Professor, the Bikini Model and the Suitcase Full of Trouble and has set Film Rites' Steve Zaillian and Garrett Basch to produce.

Written by Maxine Swann, the piece ran in the Sunday magazine March 10.

Described as a modern take on Lolita, the story follows Paul Frampton, a divorced theoretical particle physicist, who meets Denise Milani, a Czech bikini model, on the online dating site Milani's pictures on the site show a dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty with a supposedly natural DDD breast size. The two begin to correspond and plan their perfect life together, but first, the woman asks the British professor if he would deliver a special package to her, setting him on a course of danger. ...
I am available to consult on this project :-) See this research article, co-authored with Professor Frampton.

Given the success of Sheldon Cooper and The Big Bang Theory, I anticipate a flood of dramatizations of the lives of sexy theoretical physicists!

Friday, August 09, 2013

David Epstein and self-censorship

David Epstein's new book The Sports Gene is getting a lot of attention. For example, this New Yorker review is quite good, as are these interviews: NPR, Atlantic.
Atlantic: ... I lost so much sleep over this. I literally almost backed out of writing this book, because the issues of race and gender got me so nervous. Eventually my agent and one of my colleagues convinced me to just do it, in the best way I could.

But I remember being at the 2012 American College of Sports Medicine Conference, talking to the head of the physiology department at a major research university. The head of the department was telling me that he had data on ethnic differences in response to a certain dietary supplement during an exercise program, and that he would never publish it. He didn't want to get into that issue.

I heard this a number of times: He was worried it would be extrapolated into saying somehow that there were also innate intellectual differences between black and white people. When I heard that, I said, "That is a huge problem. That means science could be disappearing into the filing cabinet, into the garbage cans, because people aren't willing to take this on."

And that's when I thought, I have to do this. I'm not going to do that same thing and leave it on the cutting-room floor.
Of course, it's all been covered on this blog already: 10,000 hours rule is nonsense (Epstein's example of the former basketball player turned high jumper who barely trained yet won the world championship is excellent), myostatin mutation, etc.

"Horses ain't like people, man, they can't make themselves better than they're born. See, with a horse, it's all in the gene. It's the fucking gene that does the running. The horse has got absolutely nothing to do with it." --- Paulie (Eric Roberts) in The Pope of Greenwich Village.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Science and the Humanities

Steve Pinker: Science Is Not Your Enemy, An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians.
New Republic: ... The humanities are the domain in which the intrusion of science has produced the strongest recoil. Yet it is just that domain that would seem to be most in need of an infusion of new ideas. By most accounts, the humanities are in trouble. University programs are downsizing, the next generation of scholars is un- or underemployed, morale is sinking, students are staying away in droves. No thinking person should be indifferent to our society’s disinvestment from the humanities, which are indispensable to a civilized democracy.

Diagnoses of the malaise of the humanities rightly point to anti-intellectual trends in our culture and to the commercialization of our universities. But an honest appraisal would have to acknowledge that some of the damage is self-inflicted. The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness. And they have failed to define a progressive agenda. Several university presidents and provosts have lamented to me that when a scientist comes into their office, it’s to announce some exciting new research opportunity and demand the resources to pursue it. When a humanities scholar drops by, it’s to plead for respect for the way things have always been done.

Those ways do deserve respect, and there can be no replacement for the varieties of close reading, thick description, and deep immersion that erudite scholars can apply to individual works. But must these be the only paths to understanding? A consilience with science offers the humanities countless possibilities for innovation in understanding. Art, culture, and society are products of human brains. They originate in our faculties of perception, thought, and emotion, and they cumulate and spread through the epidemiological dynamics by which one person affects others. Shouldn’t we be curious to understand these connections? Both sides would win. The humanities would enjoy more of the explanatory depth of the sciences, to say nothing of the kind of a progressive agenda that appeals to deans and donors. The sciences could challenge their theories with the natural experiments and ecologically valid phenomena that have been so richly characterized by humanists.

In some disciplines, this consilience is a fait accompli. Archeology has grown from a branch of art history to a high-tech science. Linguistics and the philosophy of mind shade into cognitive science and neuroscience.

Similar opportunities are there for the exploring. The visual arts could avail themselves of the explosion of knowledge in vision science, including the perception of color, shape, texture, and lighting, and the evolutionary aesthetics of faces and landscapes. Music scholars have much to discuss with the scientists who study the perception of speech and the brain’s analysis of the auditory world. ...

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Having it All: opt outs want back in

No, you can't actually have it all -- neither as a man nor as a woman. If you want to spend time with your kids (I highly recommend it), that will take time away from your startup, hedge fund, climb up the ladder, investigations into quantum decoherence. You just have to strike a balance that you can deal with.

Men are on average more driven by career success and money than women, and similarly women are more, well, maternal than men. It's best to think about this (as with all questions dealing with groups of people) in terms of distributions rather than strict categories. There are outlier women who are better corporate warriors than 95% of men (but perhaps they comprise less than 5% of the female population!), and there are outlier men who are great stay at home dads. At least at the moment, and perhaps for deep evolutionary reasons, the male and female distributions are shifted relative to each other along these dimensions. To me, feminism means fighting for the rights of outliers to do what they want, while still respecting the larger number of women who might be happier in more traditional roles. In my opinion, noticing properties of distributions is not in any way anti-feminist.
NYTimes: ... The culture of motherhood, post-recession, had altered considerably, too. The women of the opt-out revolution left the work force at a time when the prevailing ideas about motherhood idealized full-time, round-the-clock, child-centered devotion. In 2000, for example, with the economy strong and books like “Surrendering to Motherhood,” a memoir about the “liberation” of giving up work to stay home, setting the tone for the aspirational mothering style of the day, almost 40 percent of respondents to the General Social Survey told researchers they believed a mother’s working was harmful to her children (an increase of eight percentage points since 1994). But by 2010, with recovery from the “mancession” slow and a record 40 percent of mothers functioning as family breadwinners, fully 75 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that “a working mother can establish just as warm and secure a relationship with her children as a mother who does not work.” And after decades of well-publicized academic inquiry into the effects of maternal separation and the dangers of day care, a new generation of social scientists was publishing research on the negative effects of excessive mothering: more depression and worse general health among mothers, according to the American Psychological Association.

I wondered if these changes affected the women who opted out years ago. Had they found the “escape hatch” from the rat race that one of Belkin’s interviewees said she was after? Were they able, as a vast majority said they had planned, to transition back into the work force? Or had they, as the author Leslie Bennetts predicted in her 2007 book, “The Feminine Mistake,” come to see that, by making themselves financially dependent upon their men — particularly at a time when no man could depend upon his job — they had made a colossal error?

The 22 women I interviewed, for the most part, told me that the perils of leaving the work force were counterbalanced by the pleasures of being able to experience motherhood on their own terms. A certain number of these women — the superelite, you might say, the most well-off, with the highest-value name-brand educational credentials and powerful and well-connected social networks — found jobs easily after extended periods at home. These jobs generally paid less than their previous careers and were less prestigious. But the women found the work more interesting, socially conscious and family-friendly than their old high-powered positions.

Pamela Stone, a professor of sociology at Hunter College and the author of the 2007 book “Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home,” heard many similarly glowing stories. In the early 2000s, she spent considerable time interviewing 54 well-off married mothers drawn primarily from the alumnae networks of several highly selective colleges and universities “who had navigated elite environments with competitive entry requirements,” as she described them in her book. Now she’s updating her research and has reached about 60 percent of her interviewees, two-thirds of whom have returned to work — their decisions sometimes prompted by their husbands’ somewhat reduced earnings, post-recession. “What I heard repeatedly was ‘The job found me’ or ‘The job fell into my lap,’ ” she told me.

Among the women I spoke with, those who didn’t have the highest academic credentials or highest-powered social networks or who hadn’t been sufficiently “strategic” in their volunteering (fund-raising for a Manhattan private school could be a nice segue back into banking; running bake sales for the suburban swim team tended not to be a career-enhancer) or who had divorced, often struggled greatly.
Note, moms with elite pedigrees have a much easier time getting back into the workforce after opting out to raise young kids.

Hmm ... this might affect average hourly wages by gender ... but too complex to make its way into the social science discourse ...
At a time when having a “good” job means working 50-plus hours a week, in addition to weekends and tech-tethered evenings, it’s not surprising that, if both spouses work, it can often feel as if neither is ever truly home. And that desire to be emotionally present at home, Pamela Stone, the sociologist, told me, became more pressing over time for the women she interviewed, reshaping their ambitions when they decided to go back to work.

While two-thirds of the women she reinterviewed originally worked in male-dominated professions like banking or corporate law, now only a quarter are employed in traditionally masculine and hard-driving fields. The rest chose more female-dominated, and far less lucrative, “caring, nurturing occupations” like teaching or nonprofit work, Stone said. Only one of the women she interviewed had returned to her former employer (in a “vastly different capacity, much diminished,” she said); and all have scaled down their ambitions.

“The longer they’re home, the more they continue the trajectory toward something different,” Stone told me. “They have greater appreciation of some of the values of home and connectivity, which were somewhat alien to them in their high-flying professions.”

Helter Skelter

This is a great interview. I was a kid in the late 60s and early 70s, so dimly aware of and terrified by Manson and Helter Skelter. Apparently Manson told interviewers he was the bastard son of a teenage prostitute (remind you of Don Draper?), but this is not actually true. He also mastered Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People during one of his early stints in prison.
Leonard Lopate Show: Jeff Guinn gives an account of how an ordinary juvenile delinquent named Charles Manson became the notorious murderer whose crimes still shock and horrify us today. More than 40 years ago Manson and his mostly female commune killed nine people, among them the pregnant actress Sharon Tate. His book Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson puts the killer in the context of his times, the turbulent late 1960s, an era of race riots and street protests when authority in all its forms was under siege.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Holistic mumbo jumbo

In the previous post Working in the dark, I questioned the validity (predictive power; terminology from psychometrics) of holistic admissions used by elite universities. Below is an example of validity: the football recruiting star system for HS seniors, measuring its ability to predict performance in college (chance of being named to a college All-American team). All players in the dataset below were signed by Division I football programs -- they are elite, recruited athletes.

You can see that there is significant predictive efficiency gained in going from 2 to 3 or 3 to 4 stars. For example, there are only about a third more 2 star recruits than 3 star recruits, but the latter are almost 10x as likely to be named All-American. On the other hand, the distinction between 4 and 5 star recruits seems a bit iffy to me. Only about 1 in 10 players at or above the 4 star level are designated 5 star, with the latter distinction raising their All-America odds by a bit less than 3. There's information there, but you pay a high price in selectivity.

It's not surprising that this system works. Coaches are heavily incentivized to win, and some ratings are provided by professionals who make their living scouting HS talent. But of course prediction is imperfect: there are plenty of 3 and 4 star recruits who outperform 5 stars. The issue is whether expected return from using the predictions is positive...

University admissions committees should be able to produce an analysis of this quality or better. If the objective function to be optimized is performance at the university, the data is readily available (see below). But one could also use criteria such as eventual net worth (major donor status), fame, notable achievements, etc. to assess quality of admissions decisions. Lots of assertions are made in this context (see comments on this NYTimes article), such as that high test scores are negatively correlated with leadership or interpersonal skills that impact later life. This might be true, but I've yet to find any careful analysis of the claim.

How much can we enhance odds ratios for becoming a millionaire / billionaire / STEM PhD / Nobel laureate by proper filtering of applicants?

See Data mining the university and Nonlinear psychometric thresholds for physics and mathematics for predictors of college performance by major as a function of HS GPA and SAT.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Working in the dark

Holistic evaluation of applicants = noise? (Or worse?)

Why no evidence-based admissions?

Is there any serious study of whether subjective criteria used to judge applicants actually predict success? In psychometrics this is referred to as test validity. In the article below, it is not even clear that the evaluation method satisfies the weaker criteria of consistency or stability: applicants passed through the system another time might generate significantly different scores. "Expert" evaluation often reduces the power of prediction relative to simple algorithms.

See Data mining the university and Nonlinear psychometric thresholds for physics and mathematics for plenty of evidence of validity, consistency and stability of traditional measures of intellectual ability.
NYTimes: A highly qualified student, with a 3.95 unweighted grade point average and 2300 on the SAT, was not among the top-ranked engineering applicants to the University of California, Berkeley. He had perfect 800s on his subject tests in math and chemistry, a score of 5 on five Advanced Placement exams, musical talent and, in one of two personal statements, had written a loving tribute to his parents, who had emigrated from India.

Why was he not top-ranked by the “world’s premier public university,” as Berkeley calls itself? Perhaps others had perfect grades and scores? They did indeed. Were they ranked higher? Not necessarily. What kind of student was ranked higher? Every case is different.

The reason our budding engineer was a 2 on a 1-to-5 scale (1 being highest) has to do with Berkeley’s holistic, or comprehensive, review, an admissions policy adopted by most selective colleges and universities. In holistic review, institutions look beyond grades and scores to determine academic potential, drive and leadership abilities. Apparently, our Indian-American student needed more extracurricular activities and engineering awards to be ranked a 1.

Now consider a second engineering applicant, a Mexican-American student with a moving, well-written essay but a 3.4 G.P.A. and SATs below 1800. His school offered no A.P. He competed in track when not at his after-school job, working the fields with his parents. His score? 2.5.

Both students were among “typical” applicants used as norms to train application readers like myself. And their different credentials yet remarkably close rankings illustrate the challenges, the ambiguities and the agenda of admissions at a major public research university in a post-affirmative-action world.

[ Despite Prop. 209, the nearly equal scores of these "typical" training cases suggests outcomes very similar to those produced by explicit affirmative action. ]

... I could see the fundamental unevenness in this process both in the norming Webinars and when alone in a dark room at home with my Berkeley-issued netbook, reading assigned applications away from enormously curious family members. First and foremost, the process is confusingly subjective, despite all the objective criteria I was trained to examine.

In norming sessions, I remember how lead readers would raise a candidate’s ranking because he or she “helped build the class.”

... After the next training session, when I asked about an Asian student who I thought was a 2 but had only received a 3, the officer noted: “Oh, you’ll get a lot of them.” She said the same when I asked why a low-income student with top grades and scores, and who had served in the Israeli army, was a 3. ...

Thursday, August 01, 2013

O Rio de Janeiro

A 1986 book of Bruce Weber photographs taken in Rio de Janeiro. Weber brought some of his own models, but Rickson Gracie and family appear in a number of striking photos. I remember seeing copies in the remainder pile at the Berkeley Whole Earth Access for a few bucks. Now collectors pay hundreds or even a thousand dollars for one.

More images here and here.

Suketu Mehta in Brazil

I've been a fan of Suketu Mehta since his earlier book Maximum City, about Bombay. Apparently he's now working on something about Brazil.
NYBooks: ... We walked up to a taxi outside the hotel. I sat in the front to let the two women chat in the back. Marina asked me to Google the restaurant menu. I was doing so when I saw a teenage boy run up to the taxi and gesticulate through my open window. I thought he was a beggar, asking for money. Then I saw the gun, going from my head to the cell phone.

“Just give him the phone,” Marina said from the back seat.

I gave him the phone. He didn’t go away.

“Dinheiro, dinheiro!”

... The cities of Brazil are some of the most violent places in the world today. More people are murdered in Brazil than in almost any other country. In 2010, there were 40,974 murders there—21 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), compared to the global rate of 6.9. The highest number of murders was in India, at 41,726. But India has a population six times bigger than Brazil’s, so its murder rate is only 3.4 per 100,000 inhabitants. (Italy, by comparison, had 529 murders that year, at a rate of 0.9.) Four Brazilian cities had a murder rate of over 100 per 100,000 residents. Between 5 percent to 8 percent of Brazilian homicides are solved—as compared to 65 percent of US murders and 90 percent of British murders. Most of the victims are male and poor, between fifteen and just shy of thirty. The homicide rate has shaved seven years off the life expectancy in the Rio favelas (slums).

... One night in Rio, Walter Mesquita, a street photographer, took me to a baile funk, a street party organized by the drug dealers, in the unpacified favela of Arará. It was an extraordinary scene: at midnight, the traficantes had cordoned off many blocks, turning the favela into a giant open-air nightclub. One end of the street was a giant wall of dozens of loudspeakers, booming songs and stories about cop-killing and underage sex. Teenagers walked around carrying AK-47s; prepubescent girls inhaled drugs and danced. On some corners, cocaine was being sold out of large plastic bags. Everybody danced: grandmothers danced, children danced, I danced. It went on until eight in the morning.

... In Tavares Bastos, and in favelas like Cantagalo, with its easy access to the rich southern zone of Rio and increased security after the pacification, the residents are being forced out, not by violence, which they can live with, but by high rents, which will make living there impossible. Their right to live there was protected as long as it was illegal. After pacification, the biggest threat to longtime residents of the Rio favelas will come not from drug dealers, but from property dealers.
Here's Mehta talking about migration, history and storytelling. A good interview.
SM: I wrote as I reported [in Bombay]. So I would meet, say, a gangster, I’d go hang out with him, then I’d go to the beer bars and meet Mona Lisa [an alias for the bar girl in Maximum City], and then I’d come back home at 3 a.m. From 3 to 6 a.m. I would just write. It was the easiest writing I ever did. It was all in my head and I needed to get it out in real time. So I wrote these long sections—it was great. I was on speed or something, not literally. Better than speed.
See also Naipaul, Tejpal and India.

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