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Senior Vice-President for Research and Innovation, Professor of Theoretical Physics, Michigan State University

Saturday, November 30, 2019

The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities (John Mearsheimer at SOAS)



Realism uber alles, please. Video should start at 34:55, where Mearsheimer tallies up the recent foreign policy and military disasters that the US has blundered into: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Ukraine, ... The cause? Liberal Hegemony, in his terminology.

Mearsheimer:

The people who developed American foreign policy [in this era] are fools. They're fools...

We have foolishly driven the Russians into the arms of the Chinese [over Ukraine] ...

We wrecked Syria ... the United States played a very important role in trying to topple Assad ... that's hardly ever reported in the media ... a total disaster: the amount of murder and mayhem we've created in Syria and Libya ...
It is widely believed in the West that the United States should spread liberal democracy across the world, foster an open international economy, and build institutions. This policy of remaking the world in America’s image is supposed to protect human rights, promote peace, and make the world safe for democracy. But this is not what has happened. Instead, the United States has ended up as a highly militarized state fighting wars that undermine peace, harm human rights, and threaten liberal values at home. Mearsheimer tells us why this has happened.

Speaker
John J. Mearsheimer is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, where he has taught since 1982. He graduated from West Point in 1970 and then served five years as an officer in the U.S. Air Force. He then started graduate school in political science at Cornell University in 1975. He received his Ph.D. in 1980. He spent the 1979-1980 academic year as a research fellow at the Brookings Institution, and was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs from 1980 to 1982. During the 1998-1999 academic year, he was the Whitney H. Shepardson Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Professor Mearsheimer has written extensively about security issues and international politics more generally. He has published six books: Conventional Deterrence (1983), which won the Edgar S. Furniss, Jr., Book Award; Liddell Hart and the Weight of History (1988); The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001, 2014), which won the Joseph Lepgold Book Prize and has been translated into eight different languages; The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (with Stephen M. Walt, 2007), which made the New York Times best seller list and has been translated into twenty-two different languages; Why Leaders Lie: The Truth about Lying in International Politics (2011), which has been translated into ten different languages; and The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities (2018).

Bonus! Mearsheimer debates Hugh White on US-China competition in Asia.



For years, Australian policymakers have balanced China’s desire for an enhanced regional role with our desire for U.S. protection. However, contrary to the Canberra consensus, there is going to be an intense strategic rivalry between our major trading partner and our major strategic ally.

According to John Mearsheimer, one of America’s leading foreign-policy thinkers, Washington will not let China become the dominant military power in the region without putting up a serious fight. In these circumstances, it’s naïve to think that Australia can sit on the sidelines and get the best of both worlds: unconstrained trade with China while keeping the U.S. security umbrella over its head. Canberra must support Uncle Sam.

However, Australia’s future will be dominated by China, says one of Australia’s leading strategic thinkers Hugh White. Treasury forecasts show that the Chinese economy will be about 80 per cent bigger than America’s within a dozen years. In this environment, Canberra must prepare for the new strategic terrain in the wake of America’s declining leadership, and we would be unwise to support Washington in a confrontation with China that America probably cannot win.

John Mearsheimer is professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and author of The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities (Yale University Press).

Hugh White is professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra and author of Quarterly Essay “Without America: Australia in the new Asia” (November 2017).

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Manifold #24: Jason Snyder on Neurogenesis



Happy Thanksgiving!
:-)

Steve and Corey talk to Jason Snyder (University of British Columbia) about a fundamental question of neuroscience: Do humans grow new neurons as adults? The dogma that humans do not, gave way to the dogma that they do, which is now being questioned. Adult neurogenesis has been associated with learning, better cognitive function and resistance to depression. Jason suggests that a simple error of treating young mice as models for adult humans led to excessive optimism regarding the potential for later neuronal growth. Recent findings suggest that adults grow few, if any, new neurons but that what little neurogenesis occurs can probably be enhanced by exercise.

Transcript

The Synder Lab

Warren Sturgis McCulloch Interview (1969)


man·i·fold /ˈmanəˌfōld/ many and various.

In mathematics, a manifold is a topological space that locally resembles Euclidean space near each point.

Steve Hsu and Corey Washington have been friends for almost 30 years, and between them hold PhDs in Neuroscience, Philosophy, and Theoretical Physics. Join them for wide ranging and unfiltered conversations with leading writers, scientists, technologists, academics, entrepreneurs, investors, and more.

Steve Hsu is VP for Research and Professor of Theoretical Physics at Michigan State University. He is also a researcher in computational genomics and founder of several Silicon Valley startups, ranging from information security to biotech. Educated at Caltech and Berkeley, he was a Harvard Junior Fellow and held faculty positions at Yale and the University of Oregon before joining MSU.

Corey Washington is Director of Analytics in the Office of Research and Innovation at Michigan State University. He was educated at Amherst College and MIT before receiving a PhD in Philosophy from Stanford and a PhD in a Neuroscience from Columbia. He held faculty positions at the University Washington and the University of Maryland. Prior to MSU, Corey worked as a biotech consultant and is founder of a medical diagnostics startup.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Skidelsky, Against Economics (NY Review of Books)


From the NY Review of Books, an article entitled Against Economics, which reviews the recent book by Robert Skidelsky.
Money and Government: The Past and Future of Economics

Robert Skidelsky
Yale University Press

... Before long, the Bank of England (the British equivalent of the Federal Reserve, whose economists are most free to speak their minds since they are not formally part of the government) rolled out an elaborate official report called “Money Creation in the Modern Economy,” replete with videos and animations, making the same point: existing economics textbooks, and particularly the reigning monetarist orthodoxy, are wrong. The heterodox economists are right. Private banks create money. Central banks like the Bank of England create money as well, but monetarists are entirely wrong to insist that their proper function is to control the money supply. In fact, central banks do not in any sense control the money supply; their main function is to set the interest rate—to determine how much private banks can charge for the money they create. Almost all public debate on these subjects is therefore based on false premises. For example, if what the Bank of England was saying were true, government borrowing didn’t divert funds from the private sector; it created entirely new money that had not existed before.

[[ Certainly central banks influence the money supply, but the degree to which they control animal spirits, lending practices and standards, the price of credit risk in general, etc. via a single part of the yield curve is highly debatable, dependent on many factors such as investor psychology and recent events, etc. etc.  There is no doubt this is a complex question worthy of deep analysis ... 
At any instant in time there is a certain level of tolerance for borrowing from the future (private and public debt), and merely by changing this level of tolerance one can in effect create money out of thin air ... This level of tolerance is a completely emergent phenomenon and no one fully controls it. ]]

... one of the most significant books to come out of the UK in recent years would have to be Robert Skidelsky’s Money and Government: The Past and Future of Economics. Ostensibly an attempt to answer the question of why mainstream economics rendered itself so useless in the years immediately before and after the crisis of 2008, it is really an attempt to retell the history of the economic discipline through a consideration of the two things—money and government—that most economists least like to talk about.
On the question of whether academic economists understand how the world works, I'll just reiterate that at the time of the last financial crisis (circa 2007-2008) I became aware through direct experience that many very prominent economists did not know what a Credit Default Swap was, did not know how the credit markets actually worked, did not know how credit risk was priced. Instead, their mental model consisted of coarse graining over all of this activity (quants, traders, mobs, speculators, thieves, fraudsters) as simply a (more or less) rational and efficient market not worthy of deep inspection.

They will all deny it now, of course. But I was there.


Note added: In the 1990s, in part due to the collapse of the Soviet empire and resulting mass emigration of top scientists to the West, there were very few opportunities in theoretical physics and related fields for young researchers. Consequently large numbers of extremely talented people left the field (largely against their will) and perhaps most of them ended up in finance. As might be expected a large number of big brains began thinking about previously obscure topics such as options pricing (derivatives, Black Scholes), credit risk, the yield curve, etc. Immediately it was noted, by myself and others, that methods from imaginary time quantum mechanics, path integrals, etc., could be applied to the pricing of derivatives -- especially exotic derivatives which had, up to that time, required significant computational resources to simulate.

The yield curve and credit derivatives are especially challenging problems. One reason is that they deal with a potentially infinite (if a continuous curve is assumed) number of degrees of freedom. As one of my former Caltech-Harvard collaborators (by the 1990s a quant-trader, now a hedge fund magnate) described it, modeling the yield curve compared to pricing equity derivatives is like quantum field theory compared to simple quantum mechanics.

In modeling the yield curve one immediately asks: what are the underlying dynamics? What are reasonable consistency conditions? What is the impact of a "shock" like a change in the Fed funds rate? A moment of reflection reveals that market psychology plays a huge role in setting the model parameters... A bit of historical investigation shows radical changes in the yield curve (and, consequently, the effective "money supply") over time. One can in effect create money out of thin air!

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Manifold Podcast #23 Tim Searchinger: Biofuels vs Foods



Steve and Corey talk to Tim Searchinger about the unintended consequences of biofuels policies. Searchinger argues that these policies do not consider the opportunity costs of using plants for fuel rather than food. Combined with crazy carbon accounting principles, existing rules make cutting down trees in the US, shipping them to Europe and burning them in power plants count as carbon neutral under the Kyoto protocol. The three also discuss how eating less beef in the developed world along with educating women, family planning, and reducing child mortality in the developing world can decrease stress on land use and emissions.

Transcript

Creating a Sustainable Food Future: A Menu of Solutions to Feed Nearly 10 Billion People by 2050

Timothy Searchinger is a Research Scholar in the Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University.


man·i·fold /ˈmanəˌfōld/ many and various.

In mathematics, a manifold is a topological space that locally resembles Euclidean space near each point.

Steve Hsu and Corey Washington have been friends for almost 30 years, and between them hold PhDs in Neuroscience, Philosophy, and Theoretical Physics. Join them for wide ranging and unfiltered conversations with leading writers, scientists, technologists, academics, entrepreneurs, investors, and more.

Steve Hsu is VP for Research and Professor of Theoretical Physics at Michigan State University. He is also a researcher in computational genomics and founder of several Silicon Valley startups, ranging from information security to biotech. Educated at Caltech and Berkeley, he was a Harvard Junior Fellow and held faculty positions at Yale and the University of Oregon before joining MSU.

Corey Washington is Director of Analytics in the Office of Research and Innovation at Michigan State University. He was educated at Amherst College and MIT before receiving a PhD in Philosophy from Stanford and a PhD in a Neuroscience from Columbia. He held faculty positions at the University Washington and the University of Maryland. Prior to MSU, Corey worked as a biotech consultant and is founder of a medical diagnostics startup.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Good and Bad Journalism on Embryo Screening: The Economist vs Science Magazine


Modern genetics will improve health and usher in “designer” children (Economist), which I linked to in the last post, does an excellent job of covering the scientific, technical, and ethical issues raised by recent advances in polygenic risk prediction and embryo screening.

The author, Ananyo Bhattacharya, is an experienced science writer with (if I recall correctly) a degree in Physics. His forthcoming book is an ambitious scientific / intellectual history of John von Neumann!

What did Ananyo get right in his article?

1. He gives an overview of polygenic risk scores (PRS) and the underlying science behind GWAS studies and construction of risk predictors
2. He describes how PRS will have important applications in health care as well as in IVF
3. He discusses the important ethical and societal aspects of embryo screening

As someone who works in this area, I can say that I don't know of any popular work that combines the clarity, precision, and concision of this article (3 pages).

Unfortunately, not all journalism reaches this high standard.

For example, a really terrible ("click-bait") article appeared in the News section of Science recently, which conflated embryo screening to reduce disease risk with the optimization of complex traits such as IQ or height. I had numerous email exchanges with the writer (a self-described "non-scientist"), running to thousands of words, and including references to published work on disease risk reduction from genomic prediction. The resulting story was irresponsible, and very confusing to readers. I can judge this directly and empirically from communications I received in reaction to it.

Here is the letter we submitted to Science in response to the article. We do not know whether our letter will be published, but the News editor has already made significant revisions to the original article in response to our complaints.
Dear Editor,

Your news article Screening embryos for IQ and other complex traits is premature, study concludes (Oct 24 2019) contained significant errors, which we correct below. 
Each year roughly 2 million IVF embryos are genetically screened worldwide. In many developed countries, a significant fraction of all babies are born via IVF (e.g., almost 10% in Denmark). Reproductive health and IVF are serious matters and deserve serious journalism, not the inaccurate sensationalism of your article. Errors persist in the article even after numerous email exchanges (consisting of thousands of words of text, including references to published research) with your writer, informing your journalist clearly of these misrepresentations.

1. Your article failed to cite published work that shows significant risk reduction for complex disease conditions using polygenic predictors to select between sibling embryos. These results, which we emphasized many times to the writer, explicitly contradict this entire paragraph of the article:

The work "is the first to empirically test the viability of screening embryos" for traits that are influenced by many genes, says sociologist and demographer Melinda Mills of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. Such embryo screening goes beyond today's testing for single-gene disorders and currently "isn't plausible," she concludes.

[ Note: this paragraph has been altered now in the Science article. The original is given above. Science added this to the modified article, but still without referencing our work: *Clarification, 5 November, 10:05 a.m.: This story has been updated to clarify the context of a quote from Melinda Mills to emphasize that she was referring to screening for desirable traits, not disease risks. ]

Carmi et al. is not the first to empirically test embryo screening. Our published work predates it. Furthermore, Carmi’s work uses far less sibling data than our preceding work - an order of magnitude fewer siblings, 2-3 orders of magnitude fewer families (28 vs several thousand). Carmi’s analysis relies primarily on “simulated” data, ours is 100% empirical. We made your writer abundantly aware of the published work validating differentiation of real siblings (not “synthetic genomes”) by polygenic disease status, linking to it in email correspondence:

“You would be negligent to cite a BioRxiv preprint without thoroughly addressing our peer-reviewed, formally published work in the field, significantly predating this preprint.”

Your article misleads the reader to think that the dozens of IVF clinics and laboratories working with Genomic Prediction to screen embryos for complex (polygenic) disease risk do so without detailed, published validation. This is an irresponsible, unprofessional, and dangerous misrepresentation. We reserve the right to seek damages.

2. The article, and especially the title of the article, conflates screening embryos for disease with optimizing embryos for IQ, and gives the false impression that Carmi address the use-case of our patients: relative risk reduction of disease. This is misleading, as we repeatedly emphasized in writing with your journalist: “You will misrepresent our test if you fail to make this distinction...” , etc. The reader is misled by the article - especially the headline - to think that Carmi’s work addresses the current polygenic use-case of screening embryos for relative risk reduction of disease, rather than Carmi’s futuristic thought experiment of IQ optimization. This conflation is irresponsible, and a disservice to everyone, particularly to the IVF families using screening to reduce polygenic disease risk.

From IVF scientific pioneer Prof. Simon Fishel, external to Genomic Prediction. Fishel is former Deputy Scientific Director of the world's first IVF clinic, which included Nobel prize winning colleagues Dr. Steptoe and Dr. Edwards. His response to the Science article: "IVF itself was a revolutionary new technology that also endured an initial response of similar misrepresentation. There is no reason to repeat the mistakes of the past; Science should aim to convey the state of the field with less inaccuracy."

We ask that you publish this letter, and publish a correction to the article. We also ask that you recommit yourself to serious science reporting.

Sincerely,

Prof. Stephen Hsu
Dr. Nathan Treff
Laurent C. A. Melchior Tellier
Dr. Jia Xu
Prof. Simon Fishel
Note, I commented on Carmi et al. when it first appeared, here. This commentary was one of the first things I shared with the journalist and it makes very clear the difference between optimization of traits such as height or IQ (which Genomic Prediction does not do) and disease risk reduction (which is the main focus of our report).

The following is from an email I sent to the writer and editors:
... disease conditions are themselves complex traits and are typically referred to as such, so the risk of confusion is high. From the Wikipedia article on Complex Traits: "Examples of complex traits include height, circadian rhythms, enzyme kinetics, and many diseases including diabetes and Parkinson's disease." ...
Hence the title of the Science article Screening embryos for IQ and other complex traits is premature, study concludes is extremely misleading.

The most important scientific point: we have demonstrated that polygenic predictors can differentiate between two adult siblings, one with the disease and the other without. This is the gold standard validation relevant for embryo selection -- the predictor can identify from DNA alone the sibling with higher risk of the disease. The evidence is very strong that we can reduce disease risk through embryo screening, and IVF parents have a right to make use of this capability.

In an era of rapid scientific progress and technological change, the public deserves careful, accurate reporting -- not sensationalism.

For future reference, here are simple sentences which a journalist can include in any future article on this topic:
Published validation studies, using genomic data from thousands of families, have shown that polygenic scores can predict which of two adult siblings has the disease, and which one is healthy. It is reasonable to conclude that these predictors can reduce disease risk through IVF embryo screening.

Thursday, November 07, 2019

The Economist on Polygenic Risk Scores and Embryo Selection


The graph at bottom says it all.

What is it worth to know that you, or your child, or your embryo, are in the top or bottom risk group for a broad array of common diseases?
Economist: Sometime next year, if all goes to plan, a gay male couple in California will have a child. The child in question will have been conceived by in vitro fertilisation. In this case a group of eggs from a female donor are now being fertilised by sperm from both fathers (half from one, half from the other). Of the resulting embryos, the couple will choose one to be implanted in a surrogate mother. An uplifting tale of the times, then, but hardly a newsworthy event. Except that it is.

Where the story becomes newsworthy is around the word “choose”. For the parents, in conjunction with a firm called Genomic Prediction, will pick the lucky embryo based on a genetically estimated risk of disease. Such pre-implantation testing is already used in some places, in cases where there is a chance of parents passing on a condition, such as Tay-Sachs disease, that is caused by a single faulty gene. Genomic Prediction is, however, offering something more wide-ranging. It is screening embryos for almost 1m single-nucleotide polymorphisms (snps). These are places where individual genomes routinely differ from one another at the level of an individual genetic letter. Individual snp differences between people rarely have much effect. But add them up and they can raise or lower by quite a lot the likelihood of someone suffering a particular disease. Generate several embryos and snp-test them, then, and you can pick out those that you think will grow up to be the healthiest. ...
Economist podcast interview with the author of the article, who is also working on a book about John von Neumann!

PDF version of article.

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Blade Runner November 2019



Blade Runner (1982) was set in November 2019.

Yes, progress has been a bit slow.

Blade Runner got one thing very right -- the two most important technologies of this century are AI and Genetic Engineering.

Where is the AI in Blade Runner, you ask? Not evident until Blade Runner 2049? Alien and Blade Runner take place in the same universe. A universe which contains the AI David as well as the engineered Replicants:

... a special feature on the Prometheus Blu-ray release makes the film even more interesting by tying it into the Blade Runner universe. Included as an entry in the journal of Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), who in the film was obsessed with creating artificial life, is the following gem:
A mentor and long-departed competitor once told me that it was time to put away childish things and abandon my “toys.” He encouraged me to come work for him and together we would take over the world and become the new Gods. That’s how he ran his corporation, like a God on top of a pyramid overlooking a city of angels. Of course, he chose to replicate the power of creation in an unoriginal way, by simply copying God. And look how that turned out for the poor bastard. Literally blew up in the old man’s face. I always suggested he stick with simple robotics instead of those genetic abominations he enslaved and sold off-world, although his idea to implant them with false memories was, well… “amusing,” is how I would put it politely.
The mentor is Eldon Tyrell (Blade Runner), of course. See also here and the Tyrell-Weyland Connection.

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