Saturday, July 28, 2012

Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma is an Ultimatum Game

Amazing new results on iterated prisoner's dilemma (IPD) by Bill Press (Numerical Recipes) and Freeman Dyson. There is something new under the sun. Once again, physicists invade adjacent field and add value.
Extortion and cooperation in the Prisoner’s Dilemma (June 18, 2012) 
The two-player Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma game is a model for both sentient and evolutionary behaviors, especially including the emergence of cooperation. It is generally assumed that there exists no simple ultimatum strategy whereby one player can enforce a unilateral claim to an unfair share of rewards. Here, we show that such strategies unexpectedly do exist. In particular, a player X who is witting of these strategies can (i) deterministically set her opponent Y’s score, independently of his strategy or response, or (ii) enforce an extortionate linear relation between her and his scores. Against such a player, an evolutionary player’s best response is to accede to the extortion. Only a player with a theory of mind about his opponent can do better, in which case Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma is an Ultimatum Game.
Accompanying commentary in PNAS. See these comments by Press and Dyson.
[[Press]] I was originally wondering about a much more modest question that, annoyingly, I couldn’t find already answered in the Prisoner’s Dilemma literature. ... The story now becomes one of symbiosis between computer and human intelligence: The computer could find instances, but not generalize them. I knew that the exact complement of computer intelligence, as yin to yang, is Freeman-Dyson-intelligence. So I showed what I had to Freeman. A day later, he sent me an email with the general result, equations 1-7 in our paper, all worked out. These equations immediately expose all the ZD strategies, including the successful extortionate ones. 
... The successful extortionate strategies have been mathematically present in IPD from the moment that Axelrod defined the game; they just went, seemingly, unnoticed. On a planet in another galaxy, seven million years ago, Axelrod-Prime independently invented the same IPD game. He (it?) was of a species several times more intelligent than Homo sapiens [[i.e., like Dyson!]] and so recognized immediately that, between sentient players, the IPD game is dominated by an obvious extortionate strategy. Hence, for Axelrod-Prime, IPD was just another instantiation of the well-studied Ultimatum Game. He (it?) thus never bothered to publish it.
The history of IPD shows that bounded cognition prevented the dominant strategies from being discovered for over 60 years, despite significant attention from game theorists, computer scientists, economists, evolutionary biologists, etc. Press and Dyson have shown that IPD is effectively an ultimatum game, which is very different from the Tit for Tat stories told by generations of people who worked on IPD (Axelrod, Dawkins, etc., etc.).

How can we expect markets populated by apes to find optimal solutions in finite time under realistic conditions, when the underlying parameters of the game (unlike in IPD) are constantly changing? You cannot think of a simpler quasi-realistic game of cooperation and defection than IPD, yet the game was not understood properly until Dyson investigated it! Economists should think deeply about the history of the academic study of IPD, and what it implies about rationality, heuristics, "efficient" markets (i.e., everyone can be wrong for a long, long time). 

For evolutionary biologists: Dyson clearly thinks this result has implications for multilevel (group vs individual selection):

... Cooperation loses and defection wins. The ZD strategies confirm this conclusion and make it sharper. ... The system evolved to give cooperative tribes an advantage over non-cooperative tribes, using punishment to give cooperation an evolutionary advantage within the tribe. This double selection of tribes and individuals goes way beyond the Prisoners' Dilemma model.
See also What use is game theory? and Plenty of room at the top.

Zero-Determinant Strategies in the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma provides a pedagogical summary of the new results.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

MSU photos

Super modern Wells Hall:

They shot a video of me here at Beaumont Tower, site of the first agricultural science building in America:

Anyone in the market for a big house in Eugene, Oregon, please contact me:

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Genome sequencing of human sperm

Stanford researchers announce genome sequencing of individual human sperm. Note the sequencing is, at this point, destructive of the sperm, so can't be used in gamete selection (as opposed to the easier zygote selection) for in vitro fertilization.
The entire genomes of 91 human sperm from one man have been sequenced by Stanford University researchers. The results provide a fascinating glimpse into naturally occurring genetic variation in one individual, and are the first to report the whole-genome sequence of a human gamete — the only cells that become a child and through which parents pass on physical traits. ...
To conduct the research, Wang, Quake and Behr first isolated and sequenced nearly 100 sperm cells from the study subject, a 40-year-old man. The man has healthy offspring, and the semen sample appeared normal. His whole-genome sequence (obtained from diploid cells) has been previously sequenced to a high level of accuracy. 
They then compared the sequence of the sperm with that of the study subject's diploid genome. They could see, by comparing the sequences of the chromosomes in the diploid cells with those in the haploid sperm cells, where each recombination event took place. The researchers also identified 25 to 36 new single nucleotide mutations in each sperm cell that were not present in the subject's diploid genome. Such random mutations are another way to generate genetic variation, but if they occur at particular points in the genome they can have deleterious effects. 
It's important to note that individual sperm cells are destroyed by the sequencing process, meaning that they couldn't go on to be used for fertilization. However, the single-cell sequencing described in the paper could potentially be used to diagnose male reproductive disorders and help infertile couples assess their options. It could also be used to learn more about how male fertility and sperm quality change with increasing age.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Michigan State University

I'll be moving from the University of Oregon to Michigan State University later this summer.

It will be difficult to leave behind many friends and excellent colleagues at Oregon. However, I'm excited to join the MSU community and to do what I can to further the research mission at one of the nation's leading land grant universities.
Stephen Hsu named new MSU research vice president 
East Lansing, Mich. — Stephen Hsu has been named Michigan State University’s vice president for research and graduate studies. 
The appointment, approved by the MSU Board of Trustees at a special July 23 meeting, is effective Aug. 20. 
Hsu is currently the director of the Institute for Theoretical Science and professor of physics at the University of Oregon. 
“In these days of shrinking federal research dollars, it’s imperative that we have the right person for this crucial position,” said MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon. “The breadth of Stephen Hsu’s experience as a scientist and scholar, as well as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and founder of two companies, give him the background needed to succeed in this critical role.” ...

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Up in Michigan

Guess where I am now?  :-)

Up in Michigan, by Ernest Hemingway. First published in Three Stories and Ten Poems (Summer 1923).
... Jim was asleep. He wouldn't move. She worked out from under him and sat up and straightened her skirt and coat and tried to do something with her hair. Jim was sleeping with his mouth a little open. Liz leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. He was still asleep. She lifted his head a little and shook it. He rolled his head over and swallowed. Liz started to cry. She walked over to the edge of the dock and looked down to the water. There was a mist coming up from the bay. She was cold and miserable and everything felt gone. She walked back to where Jim was lying and shook him once more to make sure. She was crying.
"Jim," she said. "Jim. Please, Jim."
Jim stirred and curled a little tighter. Liz took off her coat and leaned over and covered him with it. She tucked it around him neatly and carefully. Then she walked across the dock and up the steep sandy road to go to bed. A cold mist was coming up through the woods from the bay.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Reliable Organization of Unreliable Components

It's hard to imagine Murray reacting like this but he was a young man at the time (22 or 23) and, well, von Neumann is von Neumann.
Turing's Cathedral: ... Brueckner and Gell-Mann were able to show that even with logical components that had "a 51% probability of being right and a 49% probability of being wrong," they could design circuits so that "the signal was gradually improved." They were trying to show exponential improvement, and were getting close. "... The project hired various consultants, including von Neumann (vN) for one day" Gell-Mann adds ... 
In late 1951, vN wrote up these ideas in a short manuscript, "Reliable Organization of Unreliable Elements," and in January 1952 he gave a series of five lectures at Caltech, later published as Probabilistic Logic and the Synthesis of Reliable Organisms from Unreliable Components, in which he began to formulate a theory of reliability, in his characteristic, axiomatic way. ... He thanked Brueckner and Gell-Mann for "some important stimuli on this subject," but not in any detail. ... Gell-Mann: "I thought, my God, this great man is referring to me in the footnote. I'm in the footnote! I was so flattered, and I suppose Keith was, too."
AIP Oral History (primarily on JASON) with Brueckner.

In the introduction to Probabilistic Logic and the Synthesis of Reliable Organisms from Unreliable Components (see also here), von Neumann writes:
Our present treatment of error is unsatisfactory and ad hoc. It is the author’s conviction, voiced over many years, that error should be treated by thermodynamical methods and be the subject of a thermodynamical theory, as information has been by the work of L. Szilard and C.E. Shannon.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Resolved: the 21st century will belong to China

I read the transcript of this debate, which included Henry Kissinger, Niall Ferguson and others, at the bookstore yesterday. Video available here.
Munk debate: Is China's rise unstoppable? Powered by the human capital of 1.3 billion citizens, the latest technological advances, and a comparatively efficient system of state-directed capitalism, China seems poised to become the global super power in the coming century. 
But the Middle Kingdom also faces a series of challenges. From energy scarcity to environmental degradation to political unrest to growing global security burdens, a host of factors could derail China's global ascent. 
To encourage public debate of the geopolitical of issue of our time, the Munk Debates will table the motion: be it resolved, the 21st century will belong to China.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Whole-genome sequence from 10 to 20 human cells

See 2021 update:  Review article prepared for the book Genomic Prediction of Complex Traits, Springer Nature series Methods in Molecular Biology. Genotyping from few cell embryo biopsy is now routine.

This new Nature paper describes a genotyping technique that can be performed using only a small number of human cells. One implication is that we are close to non-destructive sequencing of human zygotes. For example, parents participating in IVF can potentially genotype fertilized eggs before deciding which to implant.
Accurate whole-genome sequencing and haplotyping from 10 to 20 human cells (Nature) 
... we describe a low-cost DNA sequencing and haplotyping process, long fragment read (LFR) technology, which is similar to sequencing long single DNA molecules without cloning or separation of metaphase chromosomes. In this study, ten LFR libraries were made using only ~100 picograms of human DNA per sample. Up to 97% of the heterozygous single nucleotide variants were assembled into long haplotype contigs. Removal of false positive single nucleotide variants not phased by multiple LFR haplotypes resulted in a final genome error rate of 1 in 10 megabases. Cost-effective and accurate genome sequencing and haplotyping from 10–20 human cells, as demonstrated here, will enable comprehensive genetic studies and diverse clinical applications.
See this earlier post Maxwell's Demon and genetic engineering:
... The amount of variation in intelligence within a particular family is almost as large as in the population as a whole, mainly due to the diploid nature of our genomes (half of the genes come randomly from each parent). Thus, as Fisher noted, superior characteristics do not "breed true" ... It is unlikely for a particular descendant to inherit most of the positive variants from both the mother and the father. If loci with positive effect on intelligence were identified, and selection performed on gametes (or zygotes), one could ensure offspring with many more advantageous alleles than normally obtained by chance. We would obtain the best from the set of possible offspring of a given mother and father. A process of this type can be thought of as a Maxwell's Demon of reproduction -- it suppresses fluctuations of the wrong sign.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Death penalty

The Freeh report on Penn State, Sandusky, Paterno and other criminals has been released, confirming my expectations.
NYTimes: The most senior officials at Penn State University failed for more than a decade to take any steps to protect the children victimized by Jerry Sandusky, the longtime lieutenant to head football coach Joe Paterno, according to an independent investigation of the sexual abuse scandal that rocked the university last fall. 
“Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims,” said Louis J. Freeh, the former federal judge and director of the F.B.I. who oversaw the investigation. “The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized.”
NCAA are you listening? Give Penn State football the death penalty. What SMU did was nothing in comparison. This is one situation where we can be thankful for plaintiff's attorneys. Are Moody's credit rating analysts on top of this?

From Freeh's statement to the press:
... Messrs. Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley never demonstrated, through actions or words, any concern for the safety and well-being of Sandusky’s victims until after Sandusky’s arrest. 
In critical written correspondence that we uncovered on March 20th of this year, we see evidence of their proposed plan of action in February 2001 that included reporting allegations about Sandusky to the authorities. After Mr. Curley consulted with Mr. Paterno, however, they changed the plan and decided not to make a report to the authorities. Their failure to protect the February 9, 2001 child victim, or make attempts to identify him, created a dangerous situation for other unknown, unsuspecting young boys who were lured to the Penn State campus and football games by Sandusky and victimized repeatedly by him. 
Further, they exposed this child to additional harm by alerting Sandusky, who was the only one who knew the child’s identity, about what McQueary saw in the shower on the night of February 9, 2001.
... The evidence shows that these four men also knew about a 1998 criminal investigation of Sandusky relating to suspected sexual misconduct with a young boy in a Penn State football locker room shower. Again, they showed no concern about that victim. The evidence shows that Mr. Paterno was made aware of the 1998 investigation of Sandusky, followed it closely, but failed to take any action, even though Sandusky had been a key member of his coaching staff for almost 30 years, and had an office just steps away from Mr. Paterno’s. At the very least, Mr. Paterno could have alerted the entire football staff, in order to prevent Sandusky from bringing another child into the Lasch Building. Messrs. Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley also failed to alert the Board of Trustees about the 1998 investigation or take any further action against Mr. Sandusky. None of them even spoke to Sandusky about his conduct. In short, nothing was done and Sandusky was allowed to continue with impunity. 
Based on the evidence, the only known, intervening factor between the decision made on February 25, 2001 by Messrs. Spanier, Curley and Schulz to report the incident to the Department of Public Welfare, and then agreeing not to do so on February 27th, was Mr. Paterno’s February 26 th conversation with Mr. Curley.
Criminal negligence? You thought I was exaggerating when I used the word "criminals" above?

See Good riddance JoePa and ensuing discussion (11/2011 -- when the story first broke).
I think when the dust settles Sandusky is clearly guilty and JoePa looks very bad. 
... what are Joepa and McQueary thinking in subsequent weeks and years when they look at each other and at Sandusky as he passes them in the locker room? Does Joepa think McQueary was on drugs and made the whole thing up? Then why is McQueary in one of the top coaching positions? Perhaps you don't believe McQueary's testimony that he told Joepa all the details about the Sandusky encounter? 
Hard to believe "Saint Joe" didn't want to know all the facts when he met with McQueary the next day.
... If Paterno continues living this is all going to come out in the criminal trial and private lawsuits. Why did Sandusky not succeed Paterno as head coach, as was widely expected? What did Paterno know? How could Paterno and the grad assistant (now the WR coach) look each other in the eye year after year, knowing that Sandusky was still around, had an office in the building and ran football camps for young kids? Didn't they wonder what happened to that little boy in the showers after 2002? Obviously there was no law enforcement action as Sandusky remained a free man. To say that Paterno discharged his moral responsibility by reporting a watered down version of the event to his "superiors" is ridiculous. 
The whole thing makes me sick.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Khan Academy and online learning

Two math professors critique the Khan Academy in the video below. See also the excerpted Chronicle article.

An earlier post on online learning and the future of higher education.

Chronicle of Higher Education: ... Khan Academy is a collection of video lectures that give demonstrations of mechanical processes. When it comes to this purpose, KA videos are, on the average, pretty good. Sal Khan is the main reason; he is approachable and has a knack for making mechanical processes seem understandable. Of course, his videos are not perfect. He tends to ramble a lot and get sidetracked; he doesn’t use visuals as effectively as he could; he’s often sloppy and sometimes downright wrong with his math; and he sometimes omits topics from his subjects that really need to be there (LU decomposition in linear algebra, for example). But on balance, KA is a great resource for the niche in which it was designed to work: giving demonstrations of mechanical processes. ... 
This is not to say that Khan Academy can’t play a useful role in learning calculus or some other subject. I don’t deny that mechanical skill is important for getting to the higher-level cognitive tasks. But mechanical skill is a proper subset of the set of all tasks a student needs to master in order to really learn a subject. And a lecture, when well done, can teach novice learners how to think like expert learners; but in my experience with Khan Academy videos, this isn’t what happens — the videos are demos on how to finish mathematics exercises, with little modeling of the higher-level thinking skills that are so important for using mathematics in the real world. So the kinds of learning objectives that Khan Academy videos focus on are important — but they’re not enough.
I tried out a couple of Khan Academy videos on my kids recently and I thought they were reasonably effective. Khan is not as precise as a real math professor but he gets the message across.

Small nitpick: he referred to negative numbers as "smaller" than positive or less negative numbers (e.g., -100 is "smaller" than 1), which is I think confusing and even a bit misleading. I think he should have used "less than" rather than "smaller". If you are familiar with complex numbers then you'll probably tend to think in terms of a magnitude (big vs small) and an orientation (with negative numbers along the theta = pi direction), so that -100 is not really small (in magnitude) relative to 1. Presumably Khan learned complex analysis at some point in his education (although maybe not, he went to MIT ;-) IIRC he started out wanting to do physics.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Rare variants and human genetic diversity

You may have read that there is more genetic variation within major ethnic groups than between ethnic groups. That this precludes the possibility of group differences is Lewontin's Fallacy (explained in pictures).

Deep sequencing of the human genome, which reveals rare variants (here, defined as those found in fewer than 0.5 percent of the population), shows that there is actually more variation between groups than within groups. (So what you may have been taught in school is not true -- sorry, that's how science works sometimes.) The figure below, from this July 6 Science article, shows that over 50 percent of rare genetic variants are found in African populations (which have greater genetic diversity) but not in European populations. About 41 percent of all rare variants are found only in Europeans and not in Africans, and only 9 percent of the variants are common to both groups.

These rare variants are likely recent mutations. Unsurprisingly, they differ in populations that have been geographically separated for tens of thousands of years.

The excerpt below is from this paper, in the same issue of Science.
Because rare variants are typically the result of recent mutations, they are expected to be geographically clustered or even private to specific populations. Using a measure of variant sharing between two samples (7), we found that for common variants, any two European populations appear to be panmictic, whereas for rare variants, European populations show lower levels of sharing (fig. S7). In general, the level of sharing depends on geographic distance, with the dependence increasing substantially with decreasing allele frequency (fig. S8). The Finnish population shows substantially lower levels of sharing with other European populations than predicted by geographic distance, which is consistent with hypotheses of a historical Finnish demographic bottleneck (23). Levels of rare variant sharing are even lower when comparing populations from distinct continents. Thus, catalogs of rare variants will need to be generated locally across the globe. 
We found substantial variation in the total abundance of variants across populations, even within Europe (Fig. 3 and fig. S7D), which is likely due to demographic history. In particular, we observed a north-south gradient in the abundance of rare variants across Europe, with increased numbers of rare variants in Southern Europe and a very small number of variants among Finns, who had about one third as many variants as southern Europeans.

There seems to be a correlation between latitude and prevalence of rare variants. Could mutation rates vary due to average temperature?

Child probabilist

I was playing a board game with the little guy and he was convinced he had developed a better method to roll the die. I asked him to check that his method actually works, so he obtained the distribution below. His number sense and intuition for probability are unusual for a six year old. He can do things I certainly could not when I was his age, but on the other hand he's had somewhat better instruction  :^)

At this point he doesn't know how to interpret the results of his statistical tests. He did tell me that if his dice rolling method didn't work then each row of marks would be the same. I wasn't there when he obtained this data.

See also Bounded Cognition.

The Hedge Fund Mirage

Bounded rationality even for the most "sophisticated" capital allocators of all: pension funds, wealthy individuals, private wealth managers. Financial services are incorrectly priced, both by sophisticated investors, and by society.

See also The truth about venture capital.

If you are interested in a sick story, search on Alphonse Fletcher or on Alphonse Fletcher chair gates west pao  :-(

Economist: “The Hedge Fund Mirage” attacks the Wall Street worshippers’ blind adulation. Simon Lack, who spent 23 years at JPMorgan, an investment bank, selecting hedge funds to invest in, grew tired of the free hand that investors all too often gave managers. He has written a provocative book questioning a central tenet of the hedge-fund industry: its performance is always worth paying for. The promise of superior performance is wrong, he says. Of course some investors make a killing, but on average hedge funds have underperformed even risk-free Treasury bills. This is because the bulk of investors’ capital has flooded in over the past ten years, whereas hedge funds performed best when the industry was smaller than it is now. What is more, it is hard to know how hedge funds actually fare, since indices that track industry performance tend to overstate the returns. Funds that do badly or implode are not usually included in the indices at all.  
Why would any client continue to pay for such mediocre returns? One reason is that hedge-fund managers are incredibly good salesmen. In addition, industry insiders who are all too aware of hedge funds’ shortcomings choose not to expose them, Mr Lack argues. Moreover, the common fee structure, in which hedge-fund managers keep 2% of assets as a “management” fee to cover expenses and 20% of profits generated by performance, has made many managers rich, but not their clients. Mr Lack calculates that hedge-fund managers have kept around 84% of profits generated, with investors only getting 16% since 1998. “Where are the customers’ yachts?” is the title of one chapter. What is worse, the disastrous dive of equity markets in 2008 may have wiped out all the profits that hedge funds have ever generated for investors.  
Mr Lack places a good deal of the blame for this on investors who fail to ask tough enough questions and have not grasped that they “want yesterday’s returns without yesterday’s risk”. They invest money with the biggest, best-known funds “that look nothing like those whose aggregate performance” they want to emulate. Instead investors should stand up to managers, negotiate more favourable terms and put their money into smaller funds, which tend to perform better.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Whole genome cancer therapy

This Times story describes a cancer therapy made successful by whole genome sequencing of the patient and his cancer cells. Ultimately, RNA sequencing indicated a particular gene (FLT3) might be involved, and luckily for the patient a drug inhibitor was available.

Genotyping was probably not the most expensive part of this treatment. The drug itself costs $300 per day, whereas whole genome sequencing is down to a few thousand dollars for fairly good coverage. The resource that is scarcest is probably the expertise for analyzing the results and planning the treatment.
NYTimes: ... Researchers differ about how soon the method, known as whole genome sequencing, will be generally available and paid for by insurance — estimates range from a few years to a decade or so. But they believe that it has enormous promise, though it has not yet cured anyone. 
With a steep drop in the costs of sequencing and an explosion of research on genes, medical experts expect that genetic analyses of cancers will become routine. Just as pathologists do blood cultures to decide which antibiotics will stop a patient’s bacterial infection, so will genome sequencing determine which drugs might stop a cancer. “Until you know what is driving a patient’s cancer, you really don’t have any chance of getting it right,” Dr. Ley said. “For the past 40 years, we have been sending generals into battle without a map of the battlefield. What we are doing now is building the map.” 
Large drug companies and small biotechs are jumping in, starting to test drugs that attack a gene rather than a tumor type. Leading cancer researchers are starting companies to find genes that might be causing an individual’s cancer to grow, to analyze genetic data and to find and test new drugs directed against these genetic targets. Leading venture capital firms are involved. 
For now, whole genome sequencing is in its infancy and dauntingly complex. The gene sequences are only the start — they come in billions of small pieces, like a huge jigsaw puzzle. The arduous job is to figure out which mutations are important, a task that requires skill, experience and instincts. 
So far, most who have chosen this path are wealthy and well connected. When Steve Jobs had exhausted other options to combat pancreatic cancer, he consulted doctors who coordinated his genetic sequencing and analysis. It cost him $100,000, according to his biographer. The writer Christopher Hitchens went to the head of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins, who advised him on where to get a genetic analysis of his esophageal cancer.

Nice guys finish last

Careful observation suggests it's mostly sociopaths at the top  ;-)

The negative correlation between agreeableness and earnings is also established here.

NY Magazine: ... T. Byram Karasu, a psychiatrist at Albert Einstein/Montefiore Medical Center who treats wealthy clients, believes all very successful people share certain fundamental character traits. They have above-average intelligence, street smarts, and a high tolerance for anxiety. “They are sexual and aggressive,” he says. “They are also competitive with anyone and have no fear of confrontations; in fact, they thrive on them. And in contrast to their image, they are not extroverted. They become charmingly engaging when needed, but in their private world, they are private people.” They are, in the parlance, all business. 
Earlier this year, researchers led by Timothy Judge at Notre Dame went some way toward proving Karasu’s observation when they published a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology titled “Do Nice Guys—And Gals—Really Finish Last? The Joint Effects of Sex and Agreeableness on Income.” The paper explored, in part, the financial penalties that women suffer in the workplace for being perceived as pushovers. But it also found a strong correlation, especially dramatic in men, between disagreeableness and income. Subjects were asked to assess whether they had a forgiving nature or found fault with others, whether they were trusting, cold, considerate, or cooperative. Then they were given an agreeableness score. Men with the lowest agreeableness earned $42,113 in a given year; those with the highest agreeableness earned $31,259. Disagreeableness was also correlated to job responsibility and recommendations for the management track. ... 
Piff’s most notorious research seemed to demonstrate the extent to which people with money behave as if the world revolves around them. Last year, he spent three months hanging out at the ­intersection of Interstate 80 and Lincoln Highway, near the Berkeley Marina. ... Piff and his research team would stake out the intersection at rush hour, crouching behind a bank of shrubs near the Sea Breeze Market and Deli, and catalogue the cars that came by, giving each vehicle a grade from one to five. (Five would be a new-model Mercedes, say, and one would be an old, battered Honda like the one Piff drives.) Then the researchers would observe the drivers’ behavior. A third of people who drove grade-five cars, Piff found, rolled into the intersection without first coming to a complete stop—a violation, he reminds readers in his PNAS study, of the ­California ­Vehicle Code. “Upper-class drivers were the most likely to cut off other vehicles even when controlling for time of day, driver’s perceived sex, and amount of traffic.” When Piff designed a similar experiment to test drivers’ regard for pedestrians, in which a researcher would enter a zebra crossing as a car approached it, the results were more staggering. ... fully half the grade-five cars cruised right into the crosswalk. “It’s like they didn’t even see them,” Piff told me. 
... Looking at the data from the heart monitors, Stellar found a direct, negative correlation in biological terms between class and compassion. “Lower-class individuals showed greater heart-rate deceleration in response to the suffering of others,” Stellar wrote. The heart rates of the upper-class subjects generally did not change. 
... The American Dream is really two dreams. There’s the Horatio Alger myth, in which a person with grit, ingenuity, and hard work succeeds and prospers. And there’s the firehouse dinner, the Fourth of July picnic, the common green, in which everyone gives a little so the group can get a lot. Markus’s work seems to suggest the emergence of a dream apartheid, wherein the upper class continues to chase a vision of personal success and everyone else lingers at a potluck complaining that the system is broken. (Research shows that the rich tend to blame individuals for their own failure and likewise credit themselves for their own success, whereas those in the lower classes find explanations for inequality in circumstances and events outside their control.)

Friday, July 06, 2012

Hacker hostels

When I started my first company we rented a huge house in N. Berkeley (which we called the Geek House, or Geek Haus) and furnished it in one shot (beds, desks, tables, lamps, dressers) with a mega trip to Ikea. The coders lived in the house, generally one or two to a room, and the downstairs had a server room and rows of workstations. The whole thing was wired with ethernet (pre-Wifi!) and the garage was filled with computers. We even had mats in the back to practice BJJ and a pullup bar (I tied another Berkeley physics PhD named Aram in the pullup contest with 18). What else could anyone ask for? When we closed a bigger VC round we got some real office space in Emeryville next to the Siebel building.

I actually never lived in the Geek House. My girlfriend and I rented a 3500 square foot house in the Piedmont hills from a Berkeley chemistry professor who was on sabbatical. From the decks and patio you could see SF, the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge. If you ever get a chance to live in the Berkeley hills don't turn it down :-)

NYTimes: This is not some kind of dorm, but a “hacker hostel.” It’s one of several in the Bay Area that offer short- or long-term stays for aspiring tech entrepreneurs on the bottom rung of the Silicon Valley ladder, those who haven’t yet achieved Facebook-level riches. These establishments put a twist on the long tradition of communal housing for tech types by turning it into a commercial enterprise. 
The San Francisco hostel is part of a minichain of three bunk-bed-stuffed residences under the same management, all places where young programmers, designers and scientists can work, eat and sleep. 
These are not so different from crowded apartments that cater to immigrants. But many tenants are here not so much for the cheap rent — $40 a night — as for the camaraderie and idea-swapping. And potential tenants are screened to make sure they will contribute to the mix. Justin Carden, a 29-year-old software engineer who is staying in another hostel, in Menlo Park, while working on a biotech start-up, talks about the place as if it were Stanford. 
“The intellectual stimulation you get from being here is unparalleled,” Mr. Carden said. “If you’re wanting to do something to change the world and make it a fundamentally better place, you need to be around the right people.”

Notice how idealistic Mr. Carden is. His goal is to change the world by creating something great -- not to earn a seven-figure bonus by ripping the face off a muppet (client)  ;-)

Compare to Foo Camp.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Chomsky: genetic barriers to scientific progress

Chomsky on the limits of human intelligence. Although I don't agree completely with Chomsky, trying to explain the Higgs boson to non-physicists (even, to non-particle physicists) makes me sympathetic to his perspective.

I do think the rate of progress in science is partially limited by the availability of human capital. If we had more and better human capital we could advance much faster. See Plenty of room at the top.

QUESTION: Do you think genetic barriers to further progress are becoming obvious in some areas of art and science? 
CHOMSKY: You could give an argument that something like this has happened in quite a few fields. It was possible in the late nineteenth century for an intelligent person of much leisure and wealth to be about as much at home as he wanted to be in the arts and sciences. But forty years later that goal had become hopeless. ... 
I think it has happened in physics and mathematics, for example. There's this idea, which goes back to the French mathematicians known collectively as Bourbaki, that the development of mathematics was originally the exploration of everyday intuitions of space and number. That is probably somewhat true through the end of the nineteenth century. But I don't think it's true now. As for physics, in talking to students at MIT, I notice that many of the very brightest ones, who would have gone into physics twenty years ago, are now going into biology. I think part of the reason for this shift is that there are discoveries to be made in biology that are within the range of an intelligent human being. This may not be true in other areas. 

QUESTION: You seem to be saying two things. First, that whatever defines our common human nature will turn out to be a shared set of intuitions that owe much of their strength and character to our common genetic heritage -- our species genotype. Second, that the exhaustion of these intuitions in many areas is producing a peculiar kind of artistic and scientific specialization. Further progress in music or mathematics, for example, requires a scientist or artist with an unusual heredity. [[ It's called g, it's heritable and it's normally distributed in the population ...  So, yes, high g corresponds to "unusual heredity" ... ]]
CHOMSKY: Well, it's a different mental constitution -- something like being a chess freak or a runner who can do a three-and-one-half minute mile. It's almost a matter of logic that this change is going to occur sooner or later. Has it happened already? That's a matter of judgment. It's a matter of looking at, say, the twentieth century and seeing whether there are signs of this change. Is it the case, for example, that contemporary work in the arts and sciences is no longer part of our common aesthetic and intellectual experience? Well, there are signs. But whether the signs are realistic or whether we are just going through a sort of sea change and something will develop, who knows? Maybe a thousand years from now we'll know.

Chomsky may not be aware of it, but many physicists had doubts that humans could understand atoms and quantum mechanics:
Wigner: Until 1925, most great physicists, including Einstein and Planck, had doubted that man could truly grasp the deepest implications of quantum theory. They really felt that man might be too stupid to properly describe quantum phenomena. ...the men at the weekly colloquium in Berlin wondered "Is the human mind gifted enough to extend physics into the microscopic domain ...?" Many of those great men doubted that it could.

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