Thursday, May 26, 2011

Traffic, preterm birth, and adaptationism

So, here's a thing:
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This relates to a criticism that I made of evolutionary psychology, but which applies to many naive adaptationist arguments: it is easy to come up with a plausible-sounding adaptive explanation of just about anything. In most cases, it is equally easy to come up with an equally plausible-sounding explanation of the exact opposite phenomenon.

Barnett AG, Plonka K, Seow WK, Wilson LA, & Hansen C (2011). Increased traffic exposure and negative birth outcomes: a prospective cohort in Australia. Environmental health : a global access science source, 10 PMID: 21453550

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

White Rock paint core

So, I grew up in the science town of Los Alamos, New Mexico, which is actually sort of two towns: Los Alamos and White Rock. The two towns share a lot of things, including a Sonic, a middle school, a high school, and a love of very large bombs.

Well, at the entrance to White Rock (right next to the quickie mart) is the eponymous rock. The white rock is only sometimes white, as it is a long-standing tradition to paint it in different colors an patterns.

Well, apparently Mouser NerdBot (who is, I assume, based on the name, a Palin relation), was curious just how thick the paint was and took a core sample, discovering that it was five and a half inches thick.

Here's a small version of the composite picture, but you should really check out the full-size image here.


Five and a half inches!?! That's like twice the size of my . . . um . . . pet hamster?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Chewbacca as Axl Rose

So, here's something that will make you yearn for a simpler time, when a Sasparilla cost two bits, everybody knew their neighbors, and wookies still had a sense of dignity.

Warning: if you love Star Wars, this will hurt your soul.

If you love the Star Wars prequels, you will probably enjoy this video in a non-ironic way. Also, you should get that checked.

via Geekologie.

What has become of my intellectual blog?

So, I started this blog as a place to talk about evolutionary biology, poetry, and -- occasionally -- other topics that came up.  How's that working out?  Well, here are the top ten search terms that have led people to Lost in Transcription:

  1. ann coulter radiation
  2. macho man stops rapture
  3. randy savage rapture
  4. macho man stops the rapture
  5. lost in transcription
  6. macho man rapture
  7. randy savage stops rapture
  8. randy savage stops the rapture
  9. ann coulter hormesis
  10. sonic hot dog radio commercial
Hmmm. . .

For those of you who have reached this post in error, and were looking for the video of Macho Man Randy Savage rapping while stopping the rapture, you can find it here

Monday, May 23, 2011

Minnesota Republican John Kriesel gives moving speech on gay marriage

So, every now and then, something happens in state politics that reaffirms my faith in democracy. It happens when someone governs like a human being who actually loves America and Americans. When they take a stand based on their beliefs, rather than polling numbers and lobbyist dollars.

I'm not sure I've ever seen this at the national level.

In this case, the reaffirmation comes from Minnesota, where state representative John Kriesel gave a moving speech about why he was voting against a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

The punchline? Kriesel is a Republican -- one of only two to vote against the amendment.

I don't know what political repercussions Kriesel will suffer as a result. But that's what is so beautiful about this speech. It seems that Kriesel doesn't care, and is actually voting for what he thinks is right. If we could figure out a way to fill all of our elected positions with people willing to do that, we would live in a very different and much better America.

Now, it's not all silver lining. The measure passed the Minnesota House 70-62. And, just to make sure we all understand the profound spitefulness of this amendment, there is already a law banning gay marriage in Minnesota.

via Boing Boing

The rapture: Darwin-Eats-Cake style

So, here's this, then.
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Just as an editorial note, the day Harold Camping jumps off the roof of a Pizza Hut will be a great day for America.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Let's Voltron

So, by all indications, the rapture seems not to have happened this weekend. The leading theory seems to be that Macho Man Randy Savage stopped it in dramatic fashion.

Of course, the alternative is that Voltron intervened. After all, he is the Defender of the Universe.

Which leads me to our next video. Apparently, this summer Nicktoons is launching Voltron Force, based on the 1980s-era Voltron. I saw a lot of Voltron back in grad school junior high. Personally, I would be much more excited for a remake of Robotech, and not just because Lisa Hayes is much hotter than Princess Allura.

Perhaps I'm oversharing.

Anyway, here's the theme song from the new Voltron Force, which is just sort of, well, something.

Sunday Linkasaurolophus: May 22, 2011

So, welcome back to Sunday Linkasaurolophus, the weekly feature where I point you towards things that I wish I had written. This week: Kate Harding, Dorothy Parvaz, and Tim Harford.

Kate Harding writes in the wake of the week's news about Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dominique Strauss-Kahn. She eloquently makes the distinction between infidelity and sexual assault and takes the media to task not only for failing to understand this distinction, but for responding to the Strauss-Kahn allegations with a sanctimonious and hypocritical that-would-never-happen-here-in-America attitude. Highlights include:
There are certainly points of overlap between being a cad and being a criminal: An overblown sense of entitlement, an apparent lack of empathy for anyone you might hurt, an erection. But cheating on your wife is not a gateway drug to sexual assault. They are two different things, one of them a crime. If you’re a journalist, please take a moment now to repeat that to yourself a few times.
And then please consider this: A man who’s known for grabbing women’s breasts and asses without their consent (a crime) is not just some amusing, slightly pathetic Pepe Le Pew cartoon until the day someone accuses him of non-consensual penetration. He was actually already a sexual predator! And yet, inevitably, as soon as someone does accuse him of rape, friends who are familiar with his history of non-consensual groping will rush to tell the press that the accusations are absurd, insulting, inconceivable! Sure, everyone knew the lion liked to chase gazelles and pin them down and bat them around a bit for fun, but he would never eat one. That’s just not in his nature.
Do you see the difference? One guy treats women rather shabbily, and he should be ashamed of himself. The other guy treats women like inanimate objects he is entitled to do whatever the fuck he wants to, and he should be ashamed of himself and also held legally responsible for his crimes. The line between the two is really not all that fine or blurry, you guys! It’s actually pretty recognizable!

Dorothy Parvaz, a reporter for Al Jazeera recounted her experiences of being detained and interrogated, first in Syria, then in Iran. She was missing for a total of nineteen days.
One afternoon, the beating we heard was so severe that we could clearly hear the interrogator pummelling his boots and fists into his subject, almost in a trance, yelling questions or accusations rhythmically as the blows landed in what sounded like the prisoner's midriff.
My roommate shook and wept, reminding me (or perhaps herself) that they didn't beat women here.
There was a brief break before the beating resumed, and my first impulse was to cover my ears, but then I thought, "If this man is crying, shouldn’t someone hear him?"

Tim Harford has provided a couple of excerpts from his new book, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, over at Slate. The book is about how critical it is for us to support creative, innovative, and even radical ideas. The first excerpt is about the push for innovation in the Royal Air Force that led to the creation of the Spitfire, the fighter plane that played a critical role in holding off the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain, thereby saving Britain from invasion and, arguably, saving the world.
When we invest money now in the hope of payoffs later, we think in terms of a return on our investment—a few percent in a savings account, perhaps, or a higher but riskier reward from the stock market. What was the return on Henry Cave-Browne-Cave's investment of 10,000 pounds? Four hundred and thirty thousand people saved from the gas chambers, and denying Adolf Hitler the atomic bomb. The most calculating economist would hesitate to put a price on that.
Return on investment is simply not a useful way of thinking about new ideas and new technologies. It is impossible to estimate a percentage return on blue-sky research, and it is delusional even to try. Most new technologies fail completely. Most original ideas turn out either to be not original after all, or original for the very good reason that they are useless. And when an original idea does work, the returns can be too high to be sensibly measured. . . .
. . . . It would be reassuring to think of new technology as something we can plan. And sometimes, it's true, we can: the Manhattan Project did successfully build the atomic bomb; John F. Kennedy promised to put a man on the Moon inside a decade, and his promise was kept. But these examples are memorable in part because they are unusual. It is comforting to hear a research scientist, corporation, or government technocrat tell us that our energy problems will soon be solved by some specific new technology: a new generation of hydrogen-powered cars, maybe, or biofuels from algae, or cheap solar panels made from new plastics. But the idea that we can actually predict which technologies will flourish flies in the face of all the evidence. The truth is far messier and more difficult to manage.
The second excerpt is about risk-taking in science, where he notes the importance of funding both safe, incremental research AND risky, blue-sky research. The problem is that the bureaucratic nature of agencies like the NIH and NSF means that they excel at the former, but fail at the latter.
Here's the thing about failure in innovation: It's a price worth paying. We don't expect every lottery ticket to pay a prize, but if we want any chance of winning that prize, then we buy a ticket. In the statistical jargon, the pattern of innovative returns is heavily skewed to the upside; that means a lot of small failures and a few gigantic successes. The NIH's more risk-averse approach misses out on many ideas that matter. . . .
. . . . We need bureaucrats to model themselves on the chief of Britain's air staff in the 1930s: "firms are reluctant to risk their money on highly speculative ventures of novel design. If we are to get serious attempts at novel types ... we shall have to provide the incentive." That is the sort of attitude that produces new ideas that matter.

And here's what you missed at Darwin Eats Cake this week. Eleonora and Handy Andy discussed the implications of new research showing parallels between neurological disorders and economic instability in The Economic Brain. And, Todd presented a guide to whether or not you should be reading the webcomic Darwin Eats Cake, based on your opinions on Tom the Dancing Bug, xkcd, and the Onion in Who should read Darwin Eats Cake?

Macho Man Randy Savage stops the rapture

So, the still picture of the Macho Man stopping the rapture has been going viral, but here is a truly hypnotic video. Yes, the background music is Macho Man rapping.

I want to say that he's putting the rap in rapture. But maybe he's taking it out of rapture?

In any event, I assume he is somewhere now having a good wrestle with Andy Kaufman, and that Elvis is watching in an only slightly creepy way.

Update: Kicks the "rap" out of "rapture"? Is that the one I'm looking for?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Mandatory rapture viewing/listening

So, for the small fraction of you who have not already been listening to this song today, here it is:

Thursday, May 19, 2011

I can haz rapshur? Endgame effects.

So, you've probably heard that the world is ending this Saturday (or, as Tom Scocca explains, sometime between Friday evening and Sunday morning, depending on how the rapture interacts with the time zones). You may already have signed up on Facebook to attend the pre-rapture orgy and/or the post-rapture looting.

Earlier, I posted my discovery that you can be taken up by the rapture even if you're actively engaging in gay sex when it happens, which is pretty awesome.

But now I want to talk about the timing issue.

Back in January I wrote a post making fun of Harold Camping's claim that he knew when the rapture was coming. The biblical counter-argument comes from Matthew 24:36, which, in the standard Lolcat edition, reads:
but bout dat dai or hour no wan knows, not even teh angels in heaven, nor teh son, [e] but only teh fathr.
(The non-biblical counter-argument, of course, is, "Wait, what? That's just stupid.")

The punchline in my previous post was a variation of the standard one that people like myself like to drop in these situations. In this case, it was, "Look! An evolutionary biologist who was raised in a Unitarian church with an atheist minister knows more about the bible than Harold Camping! Hahahaha!"
This is the bible translation favored by Lost in Transcription.
In fact, this is just one of several places in the bible that emphasize the unpredictability of the rapture (and/or the second coming, which is maybe a different thing -- who knew?).

So, what's that about, then? What it reminds me of is the phenomenon of endgame effects in economic games. If you're not familiar with endgame effects, well, actually you are, because it is one of those regularities that shows up in life just as much as it does in experimental economics.

I'll describe this in terms of a public goods game, but the phenomenon occurs in a variety of contexts. In your standard public goods game, players are given some money. Each player chooses how much of their money to contribute to a common pot. The money in the pot is then multiplied by some amount (e.g. 3X), and then divided equally among the players, without regard to whether or not they contributed.
Nice picture illustrating the basic structure of a public goods game. I poached this one from Ben Allen's blog, which would make him a cooperator, since he made this slide. I would be a defector, since I am freeloading off of his work.
The group as a whole benefits most if everyone puts their whole endowment into the pot. But, each individual gets their best payoff if everyone else donates to the pot, but they don't. If you run this experiment over and over, you find that people typically start off making a decent contribution (typically ~ 50%), but the contributions decline over time, until eventually pretty much everyone is putting in nothing.

A standard modification, then, is to incorporate a punishment phase after each round of the game. For example, people might be given the option to pay some money in order to have money taken away from one of the people who did not donate to the pot.

The first interesting finding that gets reproduced again and again is that people are willing to pay to punish defectors. The second standard finding is that incorporating a punishment phase stabilizes cooperation. So, given the threat of punishment, people will continue to donate to the pot at a high level.
I was going to write something like, "Punishment in most behavioral economics experiments is monetary rather than physical," but all I can think is, "This is so wrong on so many levels." Why do you do this to me, Google? 
Okay, so here's where the endgame effect comes in. These experiments are typically set up to run a certain number of rounds. Whether the experiment lasts for ten rounds or twenty or a hundred, people will start defecting (contributing less) in the final few rounds. Presumably this is because they know that there will be less opportunity for them to get punished, so they maximize their short term gains.

Now, let's say you're starting a religion, and you want to influence people's behaviors. The first thing you do is you set up a system of rewards and punishments (e.g., heaven and hell). Next, let's say that you want to be able to convert people. Well, one thing you might do is set up a reset button, say, in the form of forgiveness. This allows you to go up to someone who has not been following your rules, explain to them about the system of rewards and punishments, and tell them that they have the chance not to be punished for their past behavior if they ask for forgiveness and act right moving forward.

This structure sets up a well known issue facing Christianity. In principle, one could completely disregard all of the rules, and then repent at the last minute. If your goal is to get people to act right all the time, one thing you can do is introduce uncertainty about when the reward or punishment is going to be doled out. In fact, this seems to be the explicit goal in many of the relevant passages.
This saying, attributed to George Carlin (or occasionally Rowan Atkinson) can be found on t-shirts, mugs, mouse pads, and bumper stickers. It is sometimes used by actual religious folks, who are either missing or reappropriating the irony.

Matthew 24:43-44 compares the second coming to having a thief break into your house:
but understand dis: if teh ownr ov teh houz had known at wut tiem ov nite teh thief wuz comin, he wud has kept watch an wud not has let his houz be brokd into. so u also must be ready, cuz teh son ov man will come at an hour when u do not expect him.

And the parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) is about always being prepared:
"At that tyme the couch of the cieling will be like 10 gurlz who can has some flashlites and go meetz teh man at teh door. 5 wur stoopid and 5 wur not stoopid. Teh stoopid gurlz gotz flashlites, but no baterys. Teh not stoopid onez brot baterys. Teh man wuz gonna be rly late, n tey al took a nap.
"In teh night some dood yelld: 'It's teh man! Go meets him!'
"Then al teh gurlz wok up n turnd on teh flashlites. Teh stoopid gurlz said to teh not stoopid gurlz: 'I can has ur baterys? Mine r dead.'
"'No' teh not stoopid gurlz said 'These r mah baterys! Go buys some.'
"But wile tey wur gone buyin teh baterys, teh man arived. Teh not stoopid gurlz went in wit teh man to his crib to parteh n tey close teh door.
"Latr teh stoopid gurlz came. 'Dood!' tey said 'We r outsid r door, waitin for u to let us in!'
"But teh man said 'Who r u? Go away, this is mah parteh!'
"So keep redy for teh couch of the cieling, cus u don't kno wen Jebus is comin bak.
So, the whole thing seems structured to deal with this aspect of human nature that has been shown by lots of different economics experiments, but is well known to you from everyday life, as it was well known to the people writing the new testament two thousand years ago: people will cheat if they think they can get away with it.
Bad behavior is something that you can get away with right up until the point where you can't.
Selten, R., & Stoecker, R. (1986). End behavior in sequences of finite Prisoner's Dilemma supergames A learning theory approach Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 7 (1), 47-70 DOI: 10.1016/0167-2681(86)90021-1

Rapture doesn't care about gay marriage

So, you know that the rapture is supposedly coming this Saturday (more on that in the next post). Most people who believe this probably also believe that homosexuality automatically gets you put on the "naughty" list.

However, the description of the rapture in Luke 17 explicitly confirms what is obvious to anyone who is not blinded by homophobia and bigotry: some gay people are good and some are bad.  How about that! Just like non-gay people. Here is Luke 17:34-35, describing how some people will be "taken" in the rapture while others will not:
I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left.
Two women shall be grinding together; the one shall be taken, and the other left.
I'm just sayin'.

Welcome to our OOL

So, this is out of order, but please feel free to print these out and hang them up at your next conference.

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Should you be reading Darwin Eats Cake?

So, speaking as the author, I would say, yes you should! You should repost it on your blog, share it on Facebook, tweet it, digg it, redditize it, and print it out in hard copy for your grandmother. The only requirement is that you have eyes, or a friend with eyes who can describe the comic to you.

But, I recognize that you might want a little more of a sense of who the target audience is. I hope this helps.

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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Mentos plus Diet Coke plus Camera equals

So, if you're someone who reads this blog, you've probably already done the Mentos in Diet Coke experiment personally. If not, you should go do it right now, and make sure you have your camera ready:

via Geekologie

Monday, May 16, 2011

You know what, "God," I don't negotiate with terrorists

So, do you know what caused the rash of tornadoes across the southern United States at the end of april? Something about temperature inversions and wind shear, you say?


According to the folks over at Faith2Action (via Wonkette), the problem is the trifecta of insufficient forced birth, insufficient sexual bigotry, and insufficient shitting on Palestinians:
Is God trying to get our attention?
The worst tornado outbreak in American history has left hundreds dead.   Mississippi flooding has not been this bad in 80 years.  Wildfires have swept through millions of acres in Texas and Oklahoma. 
There are a number of things that could give God reason to at least partially lift His protective Hand from America, including the millions of abortions done here each year, the flaunting of sexual sin, and our recent treatment of Israel.
Any support that the U.S. provides for dividing the Holy Land risks God’s wrath against us.  Rabbi Aryeh Spero says that a division could displace 400,000 Jews from their homes and more Christian holy sites would fall under Muslim control.
Pray that this will not happen and that many Americans will give their undivided attention to God.
Of course, this type of statement is not really news. Every time anything bad happens, from tornadoes to 9/11, there are always religious leaders who come forward to claim responsibility that "God" is punishing us for something or other.

Two things.

First, it's interesting that "God" always seems to be punishing us for something that just so happens to be a current hot-button political issue.

Second, the punishment almost always seems to come in the form of killing a whole bunch of people who have no connection to the relevant policy decisions.

Some gay people get married in Massachusetts, so you murder a whole bunch of people in Alabama? I'm sorry, but those are not the actions of some benevolent Universe-creating deity, those are the actions of an abusive psychopath.

Now I'm not claiming that Faith2Action caused the tornadoes, but their actions in the wake of the tragedy are no different from any group claiming responsibility for a terrorist act: "A bunch of people are dead, and if you don't do what we want, a bunch more are going to die."

In any other context, from an abusive marriage to a hostage situation, it is clear who the bad guy is. It is also clear what you should do. You have to tell Faith2Action's "God" to go to hell (as it were), because otherwise they'll just be back with more demands the next time a river floods or some lunatic carries a bomb into a marketplace, and the cycle of abuse with perpetuate itself.

That's the first rule in these situations: we don't negotiate with terrorists.

I have an impulse to apologize to anyone who was offended by this post, but I'm going to resist it. You see, there are a lot of religious people I know and respect, but I would hope that they all see the distinction between "God" and God.

If you're irreligious, or believe in a hands-off type of God, you probably already share my view that it is disgusting when religious leaders exploit tragedy to push a political agenda.

If you believe in a God who is a more active participant in human affairs, I hope that you were not offended by my post, although you might well be offended by arrogance and blasphemy inherent in someone's claiming to know why God allowed these tragedies to occur.

But what if you believe in a "God" who uses mass murder to push a political agenda, and you think that you're the one who gets to tell everyone what that political agenda is? Well, you probably were offended by this post, but I also don't apologize to terrorists.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sunday Linkasaurolophus: May 15, 2011

So, here's the newest Lost in Transcription feature: Sunday Linkasaurolophus. What's a Linkasaurolophus, you ask? It's like a Linkasaurus Rex, but more hipster.

Which is to say, this is going to be a weekly feature where I provide a round-up of things that I wanted to write about, but about which I subsequently found that I had nothing interesting to add.

At Science Not Fiction, Kyle Munkittrick exposes the hidden message in Pixar's films, which lays the groundwork for social justice in the future:
The message hidden inside Pixar’s magnificent films is this: humanity does not have a monopoly on personhood. In whatever form non- or super-human intelligence takes, it will need brave souls on both sides to defend what is right. If we can live up to this burden, humanity and the world we live in will be better for it.

At The Nation, William Deresiewicz writes about the crises facing higher education, from exploitation of graduate students to the double-edged nature of tenure to the defunding of the liberal arts:
A system of higher education that ignores the liberal arts, as Jonathan Cole points out in The Great American University (2009), is what they have in China, where they don’t want people to think about other ways to arrange society or other meanings than the authorized ones. A scientific education creates technologists. A liberal arts education creates citizens: people who can think broadly and critically about themselves and the world.
Yet of course it is precisely China—and Singapore, another great democracy—that the Obama administration holds up as the model to emulate in our new Sputnik moment. It’s funny; after the original Sputnik, we didn’t decide to become more like the Soviet Union. But we don’t possess that kind of confidence anymore.

At Jezebel, Anna North wrote about a controversy in which the president-elect of the American College of Surgeons, Lazar Greenfield, tackily referenced 2002 study claiming that semen has antidepressant properties. Greenfield resigned as a result of the ensuing controversy, but Gordon Gallup, the author of the original study, has stepped forward to defend him. The story features comments by Kate Clancy, as well as this take-home:
Basically, there are a lot of questions scientists would have to answer before they could really conclude that semen is an antidepressant. Clancy also reminded me that Gallup and his co-authors were clear in their initial paper that their research was by no means the last word on the subject, and that it's a shame that much other scientific literature (other than the Mota study) has cited it uncritically. It's also a shame that Greenfield thought it was a good idea to present the semen-antidepressant link essentially as fact in his editorial, and then make a tasteless joke about it. His resignation isn't a case of politics silencing science, as Gallup alleges. It's a case of science poorly and offensively reported. If Gallup's research were followed up in appropriate ways and appropriate venues, we might all learn something about sexual and mental health — and yes, even about semen.

Dan Adler, Democratic candidate in the upcoming special election for California's 36th congressional district, has produced a sequence of videos, some of which have gone viral. The most viral, and the one you've probably seen, is Stick Together, but also check out Rudy! Rudy! Rudy!, which features his real-life campaign manager Sean Astin (Samwise Gamgee) and Patty Duke getting s**t done with Dan, which features, well, Patty Duke, who once played identical cousins. For the whole series, check out his YouTube channel.

Finally, over at Darwin Eats Cake, this week's episodes were: Base 10 and Welcome to our OOL.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

1971 Canadian Evolution Video

So, do you remember 1971? Me neither. As I understand it, everyone was on drugs. And in Canada, they were all on METRIC DRUGS!!

This video is a little on the long side for the 2011 sensibility, but is pretty awesome. There are a couple of the things in particular that I like about it. First, most videos that I have seen illustrate evolution by having organisms transform. You know, like you have the fish who swims to the edge of the land, wriggles out, and grows legs. Unfortunately, I think that can reinforce two surprisingly common misunderstandings about evolution: (1) that it involves organisms changing adaptively during their lifetimes, and (2) that it involves a degree of intentionality.

That's not so say that those video makers misunderstand the evolutionary process, just that the most common way of presenting the process to a broader audience lends itself to a particular misinterpretation.

In this video, novel forms arise as offspring, often to the noticeable surprise of their parents. Also, some of those novel forms are adaptive, while others are not.

Here's the second thing. Videos like this always face a challenge: how do you illustrate mating and reproduction without traumatizing the children? This video comes up with some awesome mating procedures, from eyeball things smashing into each other to a system that involves the male blowing into the female's nose.

Confidential to my wife: I've got an idea for later.

Friday, May 13, 2011

More on Nowak et al at the Chronicle

So, an article has just come out this morning in the Chronicle of Higher Education covering the controversy over the Nowak et al Nature paper attacking kin selection. I've written about the paper twice previously, once here, providing an xtranormal video dramatization of the issues, and once here, trying to provide some context to explain why so many people had gotten up in arms about this particular paper (as opposed to the hundreds of scientific papers published every year that are equally wrong).

Unfortunately, the article is behind the Chronicle's paywall, so you may not be able to read it. (I don't know if they permit the same sorts of work-arounds that the New York Times does.)

The thing that most strikes me in the article comes at the end:
Right now Mr. Nowak is working to understand the mathematics of cancer; previously, he has outlined the mathematics of viruses. It falls within his career mission to "provide a mathematical description where there is none," he says, a goal at once modest and lofty. He would also like to write a book on the inter­section of religion and science, a publication that would no doubt further endear him to atheists.
He knows that the debate on kin selection is far from over, though he sees the ad hominem attacks as a good sign. "If the argument is now on this level," he says, "I have won."
along with this comment from Smayersu
Science is written in the language of mathematics. Why is it that the biologists cry "foul" when the mathematicians and physicists investigate the theory of evolution? The biological community should welcome the help of those who are trained to examine problems from a rigorous mathematical perspective.
Two things.

First, the criticism of Nowak had nothing to do with his providing a mathematical framework. In fact, most of the people who have criticized Nowak are, themselves, mathematical biologists. The issue is that the paper discounts and misrepresents a huge body of mathematical work. In fact, while Nowak has written a number of interesting and original papers, he has also written a number of papers in which he claims to "provide a mathematical description where there is none," the problem being that in many cases, there actually is a mathematical description. Often quite an old one.

It is as if I were to write a paper that said, "You know who was wrong? Albert Einstein! Because, look, Special Relativity does not work when you incorporate gravity. So I've created a new thing that I call "Generalized Relativity."

Second, it is absolutely true that ad hominem attacks do not constitute legitimate scientific criticism. However, the fact that some of the attacks on Nowak have been ad hominem certainly does not constitute evidence that he is right.

To my mind, the relevance of the ad hominem attacks is this. They reflect a deep sense of frustration on the part of the field towards Nowak and his career success. Nowak has repeatedly violated one of the basic principles of academic scholarship: that you give appropriate credit to previous work. And yet, the academic system has consistently rewarded him over other researchers who put more effort into making sure that they are doing original work and into making sure to credit their colleagues.

It is as if, after publishing my paper on Generalized Relativity, I were to be awarded tens of millions of dollars in grant money and a chair at Harvard, while the legions of physicists pointing out Einstein's later work were ignored. I'm guessing that I might find myself the subject of some ad hominem attacks, but it would not mean that I was right.

As a colleague of mine commented this morning, "ah, Nowak thinks he's won because of the ad hominem attacks. by that standard, Donald Trump must be a serious presidential candidate."

Nowak, M., Tarnita, C., & Wilson, E. (2010). The evolution of eusociality Nature, 466 (7310), 1057-1062 DOI: 10.1038/nature09205

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

My wife interviews the creator of the evil supervillain Zachary Ruthless

So, although this blog tends not to dwell on personal topics, I have written before (here and here) about my wife, Lizzie K. Foley, whose middle-grade novel, Remarkable, is slated to come out next April under the Dial imprint of Penguin. This makes her a member of the Apocalypsies, a group of writers whose first middle-grad or young-adult novels come out in 2012. The Apocalypsies have a group blog, the motto of which is "Read 'em like there's no tomorrow!"

The Apocalypsies are posting interviews with authors from the analogous 2011 group. My wife has just posted her interview with Allan Woodrow, author of The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless, which introduces us to this child supervillain.

Here's an excerpt:
1. So I’m working under the assumption that this book is autobiographical. Do you care to elaborate?
My book, Mr. Fuzzy Pants Goes To The Zoo, is the heartwarming story of Carl the Cockatoo who falls in love with a pair of pants. I love zoos and … wait! What’s this? They changed the title to The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless … (pulling out hair) … What the … (spitting and slamming fist) … This isn’t the book I wrote! How dare they! (howling and stomping) … They’ll be sorry! I’ll blast them with ray guns! Hide their notebook paper! Put spiders in their shoes! Eat their dessert! I’ll … I’ll … but to answer your question, no this story isn’t autobiographical at all. Why would you think that?
 Check out the rest of the interview here.

Mood ring for your head

So, if you haven't already seen this, well, here it is. It's a headband with cat ears that are controlled by your mind. And not in the sense that you use your mind to control your hands, and then your hands move your cat ears around.

There are some longer (but less musical) videos at

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

How the bin Laden raid should have gone down


This is from a special one-page Lady Gaga comic that artist Cliff Chiang drew for last December's GQ.
Image from Cliff Chiang's website, which is worth checking out.
You can see the full page, where she also tackles immigration and global warming here.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Study sheds light on coming robot apocalypse

So, in many of the standard narratives, the robot apocalypse is triggered when the machines figure out that humans are fundamentally flawed, or because their self awareness produces an instinct for self defense.

Well, a new paper just out in Biological Psychiatry describes an experiment in which researchers successfully teach a computer to reproduce aspects of schizophrenia. This raises the possibility of an alternative scenario: the machines just go crazy and start killing people, Loughner-style.
After suffering from paranoid delusions, Skynet sends Vernon Presley back in time to kill his own grandfather, or something.
Actually, the paper reports a study in which a computational (neural network) model is used to examine eight different putative mechanistic causes of a particular set of symptoms often seen in schizophrenia: narrative breakdown, including the confusion of autobiographical and non-autobiographical stories. This models one putative source of self-referential delusions.

The basic setup is that the researchers use an established system of neural networks called DISCERN. The system is trained on a set of 28 stories. Once the system is trained, you can feed it the first part of any one of the stories, and it will regurgitate the rest of the appropriate story.

Half of the stories are autobiographical, everyday stuff like going to the store. The other half are crime stories, featuring police, mafia, etc.

The experiment is to mess with the DISCERN network in one of eight different ways. Each of the eight types of perturbation is meant to instantiate a neural mechanism that has been proposed to cause delusions in schizophrenia. Then, the researchers feed the computer the first line of a story and look at the magnitude and nature of the errors in the output.

Models were evaluated by their ability to reproduce errors seen in an experimental group of subjects diagnosed with schizophrenia. Basically, they are interested in finding perturbations that mix up different stories, so that the "I" of the autobiographical stories becomes associated with the gangsters and police in the non-autobiographical crime stories.

Two of the eight perturbations performed significantly better than the others:

  1. Working memory disconnection: Connections within the neural network that fell below a certain threshold strength were discarded.
  2. Hyperlearning: During the backpropagation part of the neural network training, the learning algorithm overreacts to prediction errors. After DISCERN was trained, hyper-trained for an additional 500 cycles.
These two were then further extended, with the addition of a parameter to each, at which point the modified hyperlearning model outperformed the disconnection model. 

So, what to make of it?  It seems like an interesting piece of work. It is hard to know how much light this sheds on schizophrenia, since the brain is a heck of a lot bigger and more complicated than this model. And, well, sometimes things scale up in the straightforward way, and sometimes they don't. 

What one hopes will be the outcome of this sort of work is that is will prompt additional research. While we can't guarantee that results extrapolated from computational systems such as this one will have any predictive value for the brain. But, it should be possible at least to construct predictions. A collaboration involving neuroscientists of various stripes could then potentially come up with some clever experiments, which would be interesting, if for no other reason than that they had a direct connection back to this sort of computational model.
Spot-on commentary. Via, as usual, xkcd.
The other thing we can take away is this. We now know how to train up a schizophrenic neural network. Combine it with this punching robot:
Asimov's-law-violating robot. Via Geekologie.
Teach it to snort coke, and we've got all the makings of a Charlie Sheen bot.

Hoffman RE, Grasemann U, Gueorguieva R, Quinlan D, Lane D, & Miikkulainen R (2011). Using computational patients to evaluate illness mechanisms in schizophrenia. Biological psychiatry, 69 (10), 997-1005 PMID: 21397213

For more on this article, check out 80beats, over at Discover Blogs.

Minnesota teaparty candidate makes interesting campaign promise

So, this image comes from Wonkette's coverage of Saturday's teaparty rally in Minnesota.

Am I the only one who reads this as a promise that, if elected, the candidate will perform sexual favors for his constituents?  Seems like that has to violate some sort of campaign law.

Darwin Eats Cake's 100th Episode! (Base 5)

So, here you go.
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Sunday, May 8, 2011

Happy Mother's (Mothers'?) Day

So, here's a little something to sort of creep you out later. You'll be giving your mom a big hug, and you'll be thinking of the time when you were inside her fallopian tubes and when you were implanted in the wall of her uterus.

You're welcome.

Happy Birthday, David Hume

So, here's an awesome quote from the world's smartest 300-year-old man:
Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous.
For much more thoughtful and interesting reflections on Hume's 300th, check in with JoHn S. Wilkins or  Cosmic Variance.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Well, of course not! It's like 2 billion miles away!


Field Notes on Science and Nature

So, I wanted to draw your attention to a new book called Field Notes on Science and Nature, just published by Harvard University Press.  The book is the result of several years of work by Michael Canfield, who is not only a personal friend from graduate school, but also a really smart and genuinely nice guy.

The book is an exploration of the similarities and differences in how laboratory and field scientists collect and use notes.  It includes excerpts from the notes of a range of researchers, along with essays about how they use those notes.  I haven’t seen the actual book yet, but the website promises a lot of cool eye candy, like this

and this

Although the book has already been printed, Mike is interested in continuing to explore these issues on the web. He is particularly interested in questions of how current grad students and researchers navigate between pen-and-paper notes and other types of technology.

If you or someone you know (a student, a colleague, a frenemy, etc.) might be willing to share some of your notes and experience, you (or they) should drop Mike an e-mail ( and join in the conversation.

And finally: congratulations, Mike!  I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of the book!

New Darwin Eats Cake: Goat Cheese

So, this one is not so much science based. Except maybe that biologists eat goat cheese? And pizza. Biologists eat pizza. So, let's see, every place in this comic where it says "goat cheese" substitute "pizza," and then it's biology themed.
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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Shalizi, Shalizi, Shalizi

So, a couple of weeks ago, Cosma Shalizi, who is one of the smartest guys I know, was kind enough to link to me in a post on his blog in which he shared some found haikus that his brother had assembled from answers to science questions by 5th and 6th graders in Japan.

In response, I wanted to share this very old poem of mine. If you don't know him, Cosma writes hands-down the best statistics blog on the internet, which also includes other interesting stuff.

If you don't already read it, you should.

Here are two things you probably already know, but just in case you don't, I'll lay them out here for context.
1. The Wasteland by T. S. Eliot ends with the line Shantih shantih shantih. Eliot's own note on the line is: "Shantih. Repeated as here, a formal ending to an Upanishad. 'The Peace which passeth understanding' is a feeble translation of the conduct of this word."
2. If you repeat the name Shalizi three times, Cosma will appear in your mirror with a posse of frequentists and kick your Bayesian posterior.


The Piece Which Passeth Understanding

   There was one piece left
I left half for you, but you
   Were too full to eat

The Peas’ Switch Passeth Understanding

   A woman once had
To turn off all the lights be-
   Fore she could eat peas

The Pee Switch Passeth Understanding

   Two boys in eighth grade
Swap urinals in mid stream
   They laugh and eat lunch

The Peach-wich Passeth Understanding

   A man once ate a
Peach between two slices of
   Bread and he liked it

The P’s Which Passeth Understanding

   Three letter P’s walked
Under where I was standing
   They ate garbanzos

The Peace Witch Passeth Understanding

   A witch found a spell
For peace on earth, but she ate
   The ingredients

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Reflected Glory: Langston Hughes, The Weary Blues

So, according to YouTube, 133,000 people have already seen this.

This post is for the other 6.8 billion of you.

This awesome video features the poem The Weary Blues by Langston Hughes, as read by Allen Dwight Callahan. The visuals are of Cab Calloway. If you're older than me, or if you're a big-band buff, you'll know Calloway as one of the great bandleaders of the 30s and 40s. Otherwise, you'll recognize him as the Hi-De-Hi-De-Hi-De-Ho dude from The Blues Brothers.

This is part of the Moving Poetry Series by Four Seasons Productions.

Also, apropos of nothing, here's a little Cab Calloway fun fact. He apparently fired trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie from his band in 1941 following an "incident" between the two. According to Gillespie's wikipedia page,
Calloway did not approve of Dizzy's mischievous humor, nor of his adventuresome approach to soloing; according to [band member Jonah] Jones, Calloway referred to it as “Chinese music.” During one performance, Calloway saw a spitball land on the stage, and accused Dizzy of having thrown it. Dizzy denied it, and the ensuing argument led to Calloway striking Dizzy, who then pulled out a switchblade knife and charged Calloway. The two were separated by other band members, during which scuffle Calloway was cut on the hand. 
I wonder what ever happened to Gillespie's "Chinese music" style.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Everyone should stop telling each other how to feel now

So, here are a few things that I think are true.

Even if they're not entirely true, they're at least pretty darn close to true, and I think we'll all do a lot better over the next few weeks if we could all agree to act as if they were true.
1. People chanting "U-S-A" following the death of Osama bin Laden do not hate other countries. They do not hate Muslims. They are expressing a sense of joy, or relief, or closure, or whatever, in a way that feels comfortable for them.
2. People who are too young to remember 9/11 do not necessarily have less of a right to their feelings about bin Laden's death, whatever those feelings may be. Remember that those kids have lived virtually their whole lives under the shadow of the threats (real and imagined) posed by bin Laden and Al Qaeda.
3. People who are uncomfortable with the idea of celebrating the death of another human being – even bin Laden – do not hate America. Some may wish that bin Laden had been captured alive, but they don't wish that he was still free.
4. People who lost friends or family members in the 9/11 attacks are having a fundamentally different experience from people with friends and family in the armed forces, and fundamentally different from the experience of people for who are lucky enough not to have been directly affected. None of their reactions are right or wrong. 
5. None of these points apply to the politicians, pundits, and strategists who are going to spend the next several months exploiting and distorting events for partisan gain.

What would you do about an old bridge?

So, what would you do if faced with an old-style concrete bridge that does not really have the strength that it should?

One solution has been proposed in a PhD dissertation by Gun Up Kwon of the University of Texas. Of course, this post is only marginally about that, but there you go.

These full-size episodes tend to come out poorly on the blog, so if you want to be able to read it more easily, I recommend heading over to Darwin Eats Cake.

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Gun Up Kwon (2008). Strengthening existing steel bridge girders by the use of post-installed shear connectors PhD Dissertation, University of Texas at Austin Other:

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Charlie Sheen: Queen of the Moon

So, in this post, we're celebrating three things: the Royal Wedding of William and Kate, the impending launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavor (commanded by the husband of Gabrielle Giffords), and Charlie Sheen's open letter to Chuck Lorre, as presented by the ever classy TMZ.

The sort-of heartbreaking part comes in the middle, where Sheen writes, "I'm out here with my fans every night. The message is crystal clear; NO CHARLIE SHEEN. NO SHOW"

I assume he meant something like, "NO CHARLIE SHEEN[? If not, then, as a consequence,] NO SHOW."

I suspect that a more accurate reading of the "crystal clear" message from the "fans" might be the one that he actually wrote, which I read as "NO CHARLIE SHEEN. [And also] NO SHOW. [Please!]"

Anyway, in celebration of all of these things, here is Sheen's letter. As read by the Queen of England. On the moon.

Superman renounces (transcends?) American citizenship

So, you know how around every election, and during every Republican administration, there is a constant buzz of liberals threatening to move to Canada?

But, then, you know, things turn out not to be quite so bad. Certainly not bad enough to justify having your kids grow up calling candy bars "chocolate bars."

And then in 2008, we actually elected a president who was going to bring real change to Washington! He promised a public option as part of a comprehensive health-care-reform package. He promised to make closing down the abomination at Guantanamo a top priority.

Well, here we are in 2011. While most progressives still agree that an Obama administration beats the hell out of a McCain / Palin administration, there is a real sense of disappointment about the promises broken. You don't hear people threatening to abandon America, however.

(With the exception of Rush Limbaugh, American conservatives don't tend to express their political rage through threats to leave the country. They're more likely to express themselves with racism, Nazi comparisons, and fantasies of gun violence.)

There is one man who has had enough, though:
In his 900th issue, Superman returns from protecting non-violent protesters from the Iranian army. When he is confronted upon his return by government officials, he announces his frustration with being viewed as a tool of US policy.

Actually, contrary to the predictable comments on various Fox-news related outlets (no link provided), this is not about anti-Americanism. It is better described as transcending a narrow Americanism. He is still a champion of the "American Way," meaning the ideals of freedom and democracy. He is just not an instrument of the "American Way," meaning the economic and political agenda of the United States.

As Scott Thill notes at Wired:
In an age rife with immigration paranoia, it’s refreshing to see an alien refugee tell the United States that it’s as important to him as any other country on Earth — which in turn is as important to Superman as any other planet in the multiverse.
The genius of Superman is that he belongs to everyone, for the dual purposes of peace and protection. He’s above ephemeral geopolitics and nationalist concerns, a universal agent unlike any other found in pop culture.
Somehow, the idea that Superman should only care about America seems vaguely blasphemous, sort of like the idea that Jesus should be taking sides in a football game.

One last thing. A number of commenters have suggested that if he is abandoning America, he needs to change his outfit, which is weird, since he wears primarily red and blue, with a bit of yellow, which would seem to ally him with maybe Chad or Romania.

Facebook deletes British activist group pages on Royal Wedding Day

So, what do you get as a wedding present for the couple that has everything? Well, William and Kate requested that people donate to charity in lieu of giving them yet another golden dhow, although I should note that my wife and I did that first. They probably heard about our wedding from mutual friends.
This golden dhow was given to Princess Diana as a wedding gift by the Emir of Bahrain. Extrapolating back from recent events, it seems safe to assume that the dhow was purchased with funds from US Foreign Aid, is an honorary member of the US Fifth Fleet, and was tempered with the blood of pro-democracy protesters.
Okay, so you could donate to charity. But what if you have an opportunity to give a personal and symbolic gift? One that translates the inequality and entitlement symbolized by monarchy into a decidedly twenty-first-century context?

If you're Mark Zuckerberg, you can delete the facebook pages of fifty activist groups involved in organizing protests against austerity measures in the UK. If you're unfamiliar with the austerity measures and protests, the issue is basically that the current British government is committed to minimizing taxes for corporations and the very wealthy. Then, they notice that they don't have enough money and demand cuts in things like education. For the past few months, there have been peaceful marches and protest throughout England, but particularly in London, which have not always been appropriately handled by the police.
A "Police Medic" uses his . . . um . . . +2 baton of healing? . . . at a protest of the 2009 G20 summit in London.  But seriously, all he is doing is ensuring a continued need for the services that he gets paid to provide . . . with taxpayer money.  Hey, you use the tools you have!  Image from Flickr is clearly out of context here, but you get the point.
So, it's pretty much exactly like what is happening in the United States, except for the fact that no one outside of Wisconsin is sufficiently motivated to protest.

Since the incident, Facebook has issued a partial explanation, claiming that these accounts were deleted because of a violation of terms of service. Specifically, Facebook's policy is that groups should be represented by "pages," whereas "profiles" are only for individuals.

Now, it's not hard to find a ton of profiles on Facebook that are also not individuals, but have not been deleted. Does this mean that Facebook was specifically targeting these protest groups?

Probably not really.

My best guess as to what actually happened is that someone in the British government provided a list of profiles violating this policy to Facebook. So, while whoever provided the list was certainly politically motivated, Facebook probably just acted on the information given to it.

So, lesson one here is that if you have a political group that you are organizing on Facebook, make sure to set it up as a "page." You don't want to give your political opponents an easy way to disrupt your network.

Lesson two is that if you are a political group that is likely to piss off government or corporate authorities, you should try not to rely too heavily on centrally controlled tools like Facebook. Facebook can be great for reaching out to large numbers of people, but ideally, you should also maintain connections through networking tools that are more distributed. While I don't think that Facebook acted with a particular political agenda in this case, they certainly are capable of doing so, and you don't want your group to be at the mercy of any corporation.