Monday, March 30, 2015

The rich (and powerful) are different

Discussions at the meeting I just attended are off the record, so I have nothing to report. But I will link to some previous posts of relevance:

Creators and Rulers

How the World Works

Educational background of US elites

A word cloud produced from the collective bios would feature: Harvard, Stanford, Goldman Sachs, Rhodes, Marshall, Venture, Private Equity, Acquired, IPO, Technology, Energy, SEALs, Family Office, White House, Society of Fellows, ...

My wife looked at the book of bios and concluded "You don't stand out."  8-/

See also Status-Income Disequilibrium.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Lee Kwan Yew dead at 91

Lee Kwan Yew has passed at 91. See the 2005 interview with Der Spiegel below for some interesting comments from 10 years ago.

Lee: "I always tried to be correct, not politically correct." —From Third World to First: The Singapore Story.

Mr. Lee: I faced this problem myself. Every year, our unions and the Labour Department subsidize trips to China and India. We tell the participants: Don't just look at the Great Wall but go to the factories and ask, "What are you paid?" What hours do you work?" And they come back shell-shocked. The Chinese had perestroika first, then glasnost. That's where the Russians made their mistake.

SPIEGEL: The Chinese Government is promoting the peaceful rise of China. Do you believe them?

Mr. Lee: Yes, I do, with one reservation. I think they have calculated that they need 30 to 40 -- maybe 50 years of peace and quiet to catch up, to build up their system, change it from the communist system to the market system. They must avoid the mistakes made by Germany and Japan. Their competition for power, influence and resources led in the last century to two terrible wars.

SPIEGEL: What should the Chinese do differently?

Mr. Lee: They will trade, they will not demand, "This is my sphere of influence, you keep out". America goes to South America and they also go to South America. Brazil has now put aside an area as big as the state of Massachusetts to grow soya beans for China. They are going to Sudan and Venezuela for oil because the Venezuelan President doesn't like America. They are going to Iran for oil and gas. So, they are not asking for a military contest for power, but for an economic competition.

SPIEGEL: But would anybody take them really seriously without military power?

Mr. Lee: About eight years ago, I met Liu Huaqing, the man who built the Chinese Navy. Mao personally sent him to Leningrad to learn to build ships. I said to him, "The Russians made very rough, crude weapons". He replied, "You are wrong. They made first-class weapons, equal to the Americans." The Russian mistake was that they put so much into military expenditure and so little into civilian technology. So their economy collapsed. I believe the Chinese leadership have learnt: If you compete with America in armaments, you will lose. You will bankrupt yourself. So, avoid it, keep your head down, and smile, for 40 or 50 years.

SPIEGEL: What are your reservations?

Mr. Lee: I don't know whether the next generation will stay on this course. After 15 or 20 years they may feel their muscles are very powerful. We know the mind of the leaders but the mood of the people on the ground is another matter. ...

Educational background of US elites

Jonathan Wai writes in Quartz about returns to elite education in the US. Wai also notes that more than ten percent of all Senators, billionaires, Federal judges, and Fortune 500 CEOs hold Harvard degrees of some kind.

See also Credentialism and elite performance, and further links therein.

Blue = attended elite undergraduate college or graduate school (no more than ~few percent of US population, so highly overrepresented in the groups listed above).

Red = earned a graduate degree but did not attend elite school.

Green = earned an undergraduate degree but not in either category above.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Après nous le déluge

You can always blame the Chinese.

See also A prudent path forward for genomic engineering and germline gene modification (Baltimore et al.) and Germ line editing and human evolution.
Science: Embryo engineering alarm

... In 1975, the Asilomar conference center hosted a meeting where molecular biologists, physicians, and lawyers crafted guidelines for research that altered the DNA of living organisms. Now, scientists are calling for another Asilomar—this time to discuss the possibility of genetically engineered human beings.

... Rumors are rife, presumably from anonymous peer reviewers, that scientists in China have already used CRISPR on human embryos and have submitted papers on their results. They have apparently not tried to establish any pregnancies, but the rumors alarm researchers who fear that such papers, published before broad discussions of the risks and benefits of genome editing, could trigger a public backlash that would block legitimate uses of the technology.

... But scientists don't yet understand all the possible side effects of tinkering with germ cells or embryos. Monkeys have been born from CRISPR-edited embryos, but at least half of the 10 pregnancies in the monkey experiments ended in miscarriage. In the monkeys that were born, not all cells carried the desired changes, so attempts to eliminate a disease gene might not work. The editing can also damage off-target sites in the genome.

Those uncertainties, together with existing regulations, are sufficient to prevent responsible scientists from attempting any genetically altered babies, says George Church, a molecular geneticist at Harvard Medical School in Boston. Although he signed the Science commentary, he says the discussion “strikes me as a bit exaggerated.” He maintains that a de facto moratorium is in place for all technologies until they're proven safe. “The challenge is to show that the benefits are greater than the risks.”

... Although many European countries ban germline genetic engineering in humans, the United States and China do not have such laws. Research with private funds is subject to little oversight in the United States, although any attempts to establish a pregnancy would need approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In China, any clinical use is prohibited by the Ministry of Health guidelines, but not by law.

... Church hopes such discussions will tackle a question that he says both commentaries avoid: “What is the scenario that we're actually worried about? That it won't work well enough? Or that it will work too well?”
Enrico Fermi (speaking about atomic weapons): Once basic knowledge is acquired, any attempt at preventing its fruition would be as futile as hoping to stop the earth from revolving around the sun.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Fischer Black: "a vision of the future that came true"

This is Barnard professor Perry Mehrling on the origin of interest rate and credit derivatives in the mind of Fischer Black. I highly recommend Mehrling's biography of Black, which I discussed previously here:
Black was both an undergrad and grad student at Harvard in physics. He didn't really complete his PhD in physics, but sort of drifted into AI-related stuff(!) at MIT, under cover of math or applied math.

The bio says the only course he ever had trouble with was Schwinger's course on advanced quantum. The biographer suggests Black did poorly due to lack of interest, but I find that hard to believe given the subject matter, the lecturer, and the times ;-)

Black's point of view was clearly that of a physicist or applied mathematician. He really was a fascinating guy, and the biographer, an academic economist, can appreciate a lot of Black's thinking -- it's not an entirely superficial book despite being non-technical.

After reading the book, I don't feel so bad about questioning some of the fundamental assumptions made by academic economists. Black was asking some of the very same questions during his career.
From the book jacket:
... Although the options formula made him famous, it was only one of Black's numerous contributions to finance, including portfolio insurance, commodity futures pricing, bond swaps and interest rate futures, and global asset allocation models that have become standard in the world of finance. Amazingly, he did it all despite having no formal training in finance or economics, and despite spending the bulk of his career in business settings. Certainly the most notable non-academic theoretician of modern finance, Fischer Black was one of a kind...
For more on derivatives history, see Pricing the Future and The World is our Laboratory.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Eight thousand years of natural selection in Europe

The latest from the Reich lab at Harvard. The availability of ancient DNA allows for direct comparisons between ancestral and descendant populations. These methods will only become more powerful as technology and access to samples improve.

Note the evidence for polygenic selection on height, over timescales of less than 10k years. (Fig. 3 from paper displayed above.) See also Recent human evolution: European height.
Eight thousand years of natural selection in Europe

The arrival of farming in Europe beginning around 8,500 years ago required adaptation to new environments, pathogens, diets, and social organizations. While evidence of natural selection can be revealed by studying patterns of genetic variation in present-day people, these pattern are only indirect echoes of past events, and provide little information about where and when selection occurred. Ancient DNA makes it possible to examine populations as they were before, during and after adaptation events, and thus to reveal the tempo and mode of selection. Here we report the first genome-wide scan for selection using ancient DNA, based on 83 human samples from Holocene Europe analyzed at over 300,000 positions. We find five genome-wide signals of selection, at loci associated with diet and pigmentation. Surprisingly in light of suggestions of selection on immune traits associated with the advent of agriculture and denser living conditions, we find no strong sweeps associated with immunological phenotypes. We also report a scan for selection for complex traits, and find two signals of selection on height: for short stature in Iberia after the arrival of agriculture, and for tall stature on the Pontic-Caspian steppe earlier than 5,000 years ago. A surprise is that in Scandinavian hunter-gatherers living around 8,000 years ago, there is a high frequency of the derived allele at the EDAR gene that is the strongest known signal of selection in East Asians and that is thought to have arisen in East Asia. These results document the power of ancient DNA to reveal features of past adaptation that could not be understood from analyses of present-day people.
From the paper:
... We also tested for selection on complex traits, which are controlled by many genetic variants, each with a weak effect. Under the pressure of natural selection, these variants are expected to experience small but correlated directional shifts, rather than any single variant changing dramatically in frequency, and recent studies have argued that this may be a predominant mode of natural selection in humans40. The best documented example of this process in humans is height, which has been shown to have been under recent selection in Europe41. At alleles known from GWAS to affect height, northern Europeans have, on average, a significantly higher probability of carrying the height-increasing allele than southern Europeans, which could either reflect selection for increased height in the ancestry of northern Europeans or decreased height in the ancestry of southern Europeans. To test for this signal in our data, we used a statistic that tests whether trait-affecting alleles are more differentiated than randomly sampled alleles, in a way that is coordinated across all alleles consistent with directional selection42. We applied the test to all populations together, as well as to pairs of populations in order to localize the signal (Figure 3, Extended Data Figure 5, Methods).

We detect a significant signal of directional selection on height in Europe (p=0.002), and our ancient DNA data allows us to determine when this occurred and also to determine the direction of selection. Both the Iberian Early Neolithic and Middle Neolithic samples show evidence of selection for decreased height relative to present-day European Americans (Figure 3A; p=0.002 and p < 0.0001, respectively). Comparing populations that existed at the same time (Figure 3B), there is a significant signal of selection between central European and Iberian populations in each of the Early Neolithic, Middle Neolithic and present-day periods (p=0.011, 0.012 and 0.004, respectively). Therefore, the selective gradient in height in Europe has existed for the past 8,000 years. This gradient was established in the Early Neolithic, increased into the Middle Neolithic and decreased at some point thereafter. Since we detect no significant evidence of selection or change in genetic height among Northern European populations, our results further suggest that selection operated mainly on Southern rather than Northern European populations. There is another possible signal in the Yamnaya, related to people who migrated into central Europe beginning at least 4,800 years ago and who contributed about half the ancestry of northern Europeans today9 . The Yamnaya have the greatest predicted genetic height of any population, and the difference between Yamnaya and the Iberian Middle Neolithic is the greatest observed in our data. ...

If the analysis leading to the figure below is correct, shifts on the order of 1 SD are possible over timescales less than 10k years, due to natural selection in human populations. Say it with me again: Selection, Not Drift.  (Click for larger version.)

Friday, March 13, 2015

Rigorous inequalities

The Effects of an Anti-grade-Inflation Policy at Wellesley College
Journal of Economic Perspectives, 28(3): 189-204 (2014)
DOI: 10.1257/jep.28.3.189

Average grades in colleges and universities have risen markedly since the 1960s. Critics express concern that grade inflation erodes incentives for students to learn; gives students, employers, and graduate schools poor information on absolute and relative abilities; and reflects the quid pro quo of grades for better student evaluations of professors. This paper evaluates an anti-grade-inflation policy that capped most course averages at a B+. The cap was biding for high-grading departments (in the humanities and social sciences) and was not binding for low-grading departments (in economics and sciences), facilitating a difference-in-differences analysis. Professors complied with the policy by reducing compression at the top of the grade distribution. It had little effect on receipt of top honors, but affected receipt of magna cum laude. In departments affected by the cap, the policy expanded racial gaps in grades, reduced enrollments and majors, and lowered student ratings of professors.
Jim Schombert and I discovered similar disparities in our study of University of Oregon student grades. The inequities would be even larger after controlling for student ability. Eventually employers may demand learning outcomes testing (see Measuring college learning outcomes: psychometry 101), and the results won't be pretty.

Via Carl Shulman and orgtheory.

The Fourth Law of Behavior Genetics?

I believe the law stated below almost follows from the observation that humans brains are complex machines: hence the DNA blueprint has many components, and variance is spread over these components  :^)

However, note the evidence for discrete genetic modules of large effect in other species: Discrete genetic modules can control complex behavior (burrowing behavior in cute mouse in picture at bottom), As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods (discrete genetic controls on drosophila behavior).


Christopher F. Chabris, Union College
James J. Lee, University of Minnesota Twin Cities
David Cesarini, New York University
Daniel J. Benjamin, Cornell University and University of Southern California
David I. Laibson, Harvard University

Behavior genetics is the study of the relationship between genetic variation and psychological traits. Turkheimer (2000) proposed “Three Laws of Behavior Genetics” based on empirical regularities observed in studies of twins and other kinships. On the basis of molecular studies that have measured DNA variation directly, we propose a Fourth Law of Behavior Genetics: “A typical human behavioral trait is associated with very many genetic variants, each of which accounts for a very small percentage of the behavioral variability.” This law explains several consistent patterns in the results of gene discovery studies, including the failure of candidate gene studies to robustly replicate, the need for genome-wide association studies (and why such studies have a much stronger replication record), and the crucial importance of extremely large samples in these endeavors. We review the evidence in favor of the Fourth Law and discuss its implications for the design and interpretation of gene-behavior research.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

ROLL: Jiujitsu in SoCal

This documentary is about the jiujitsu lifestyle in So Cal. It starts old school, back in the day, when the Gracies were new to the US and teaching out of a garage.

I also recommend the video below (great little fight at the beginning, ending in a heel hook; you can feel the adrenaline). I never liked sport jiujitsu. We always rolled as if the other guy could throw punches, even if he wasn't.

Friday, March 06, 2015

Germ line editing and human evolution

See related posts on CRISPR. The article also discusses egg stem cell technology.
Engineering the Perfect Baby (MIT Technology Review)

Scientists are developing ways to edit the DNA of tomorrow’s children. Should they stop before it’s too late?

If anyone had devised a way to create a genetically engineered baby, I figured George Church would know about it.

At his labyrinthine laboratory on the Harvard Medical School campus, you can find researchers giving E. Coli a novel genetic code never seen in nature. Around another bend, others are carrying out a plan to use DNA engineering to resurrect the woolly mammoth. His lab, Church likes to say, is the center of a new technological genesis—one in which man rebuilds creation to suit himself.

When I visited the lab last June, Church proposed that I speak to a young postdoctoral scientist named Luhan Yang, a Harvard recruit from Beijing who’d been a key player in developing a new, powerful technology for editing DNA called CRISPR-Cas9. With Church, Yang had founded a small company to engineer the genomes of pigs and cattle, sliding in beneficial genes and editing away bad ones.

As I listened to Yang, I waited for a chance to ask my real questions: Can any of this be done to human beings? Can we improve the human gene pool? The position of much of mainstream science has been that such meddling would be unsafe, irresponsible, and even impossible. But Yang didn’t hesitate. Yes, of course, she said. In fact, the Harvard laboratory had a project to determine how it could be achieved. She flipped open her laptop to a PowerPoint slide titled “Germline Editing Meeting.”

Here it was: a technical proposal to alter human heredity.


Bermingham told me he never imagined he’d have to be taking a position on genetically modified babies so soon. Rewriting human heredity has always been a theoretical possibility. Suddenly it’s a real one. But wasn’t the point always to understand and control our own biology—to become masters over the processes that created us?

Doudna says she is also thinking about these issues. “It cuts to the core of who we are as people, and it makes you ask if humans should be exercising that kind of power. There are moral and ethical issues, but one of the profound questions is just the appreciation that if germ line editing is conducted in humans, that is changing human evolution,” Doudna told me. One reason she feels the research should stop is to give scientists a chance to spend more time explaining what their next steps could be. “Most of the public,” she says, “does not appreciate what is coming.”

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Garbage, Junk, and non-coding DNA

About 1% of the genome codes for actual proteins: these regions are the ~20k or so "genes" that receive most of the attention. (Usage of the term "gene" seems to be somewhat inconsistent, sometimes meaning "unit of heredity" or "coding region" or "functional region" ...) There's certainly much more biologically important information in the genome that just the coding regions, but the question is how much? One of the researchers below estimates that 8% is functional, but it could be much more.

See also Adaptive evolution and non-coding regions.
NYTimes: Is Most of Our DNA Garbage?

... Rinn studies RNA, but not the RNA that our cells use as a template for making proteins. Scientists have long known that the human genome contains some genes for other types of RNA: strands of bases that carry out other jobs in the cell, like helping to weld together the building blocks of proteins. In the early 2000s, Rinn and other scientists discovered that human cells were reading thousands of segments of their DNA, not just the coding parts, and producing RNA molecules in the process. They wondered whether these RNA molecules could be serving some vital function.

... In December 2013, Rinn and his colleagues published the first results of their search: three potential new genes for RNA that appear to be essential for a mouse’s survival. To investigate each potential gene, the scientists removed one of the two copies in mice. When the mice mated, some of their embryos ended up with two copies of the gene, some with one and some with none. If these mice lacked any of these three pieces of DNA, they died in utero or shortly after birth. “You take away a piece of junk DNA, and the mouse dies,” Rinn said. “If you can come up with a criticism of that, go ahead. But I’m pretty satisfied. I’ve found a new piece of the genome that’s required for life.”

... To some biologists, discoveries like Rinn’s hint at a hidden treasure house in our genome. Because a few of these RNA molecules have turned out to be so crucial, they think, the rest of the noncoding genome must be crammed with riches. But to Gregory and others, that is a blinkered optimism worthy of Dr. Pangloss. They, by contrast, are deeply pessimistic about where this research will lead. Most of the RNA molecules that our cells make will probably not turn out to perform the sort of essential functions that hotair and firre do. Instead, they are nothing more than what happens when RNA-making proteins bump into junk DNA from time to time.

... One news release from an N.I.H. project declared, “Much of what has been called ‘junk DNA’ in the human genome is actually a massive control panel with millions of switches regulating the activity of our genes.” Researchers like Gregory consider this sort of rhetoric to be leaping far beyond the actual evidence.

... Over millions of years, essential genes haven’t changed very much, while junk DNA has picked up many harmless mutations. Scientists at the University of Oxford have measured evolutionary change over the past 100 million years at every spot in the human genome. “I can today say, hand on my heart, that 8 percent, plus or minus 1 percent, is what I would consider functional,” Chris Ponting, an author of the study, says. And the other 92 percent? “It doesn’t seem to matter that much,” he says. ...

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Short stories

Yesterday I listened to this interview with the fiction editor of the New Yorker:

Deborah Treisman, fiction editor at The New Yorker, discusses the magazine's 90th anniversary and the canon of fiction it published.

She didn't mention Irwin Shaw's 1939 classic The Girls in Their Summer Dresses. According to James Salter, Shaw wrote it in a single morning.
... "I like the girls in the offices. Neat, with their eyeglasses, smart, chipper, knowing what everything is about, taking care of themselves all the time." He kept his eye on the people going slowly past outside the window. "I like the girls on Forty-fourth Street at lunchtime, the actresses, all dressed up on nothing a week, talking to the good-looking boys, wearing themselves out being young and vivacious outside Sardi's, waiting for producers to look at them. I like the salesgirls in Macy's, paying attention to you first because you're a man, leaving lady customers waiting, flirting with you over socks and books and phonograph needles. I got all this stuff accumulated in me because I've been thinking about it for ten years and now you've asked for it and here it is."

"Go ahead," Frances said.

"When I think of New York City, I think of all the girls, the Jewish girls, the Italian girls, the Irish, Polack, Chinese, German, Negro, Spanish, Russian girls, all on parade in the city. I don't know whether it's something special with me or whether every man in the city walks around with the same feeling inside him, but I feel as though I'm at a picnic in this city. I like to sit near the women in the theaters, the famous beauties who've taken six hours to get ready and look it. And the young girls at the football games, with the red cheeks, and when the warm weather comes, the girls in their summer dresses . . ." He finished his drink. "That's the story. You asked for it, remember. I can't help but look at them. I can't help but want them." ...
Irwin Shaw is largely forgotten now, despite having been a giant in his own time. He was a hero to the young Salter when the two first met in Paris. They stayed friends until the end.
Burning the Days: ... in the winter of his life ... the overarching trees were letting their leaves fall, the large world he knew was closing. Was he going to write these things down? No, he said without hesitation. "Who cares?"

He wanted immortality of course. "What else is there?" Life passes into pages if it passes into anything, and his had been written. ...

From the Paris Review:
I wrote “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” one morning while Marian was lying in bed and reading. And I knew I had something good there, but I didn’t want her to read it, knowing that the reaction would be violent, to say the least, because it’s about a man who tells his wife that he’s going to be unfaithful to her. So I turned it facedown, and I said, “Don’t read this yet. It’s not ready.” It was the only copy I had. Then I went out and took a walk, had a drink, and came back. She was raging around the room. She said, “It’s a lucky thing you came back just now, because I was going to open the window and throw it out.” Since then she’s become reconciled to it, and I think she reads it with pleasure, too.

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