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Links for February 2013

Discover magazine notes that we can now store data in DNA, and brings up the case of the group that successfully DNA-encoded and retrieved Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. This is neat from a data storage point of view. But even neater is that it means we can do something I didn’t know we could – create a given DNA strand on demand. This sounds like it might have useful implications for genetic error correction.

Why are male German soldiers growing left (but not right) breasts?

Nate Silver gives the statistics on what is driving growth in government spending. Spoiler: mostly entitlement programs, mostly mostly health care.

Jim (jimrandomh from LW) showed me his text accelerator when I was staying with him in Boston. It’s a program that flashes words upon the screen at a constant rate to force you to speed read. And it seems to work.

You know something’s up when scientists advertise that they are looking for “an adventurous human woman”. In this case, it’s even better than it sounds: the attempt to create the first Neanderthal baby in 30000 years. Despite the obvious appeal of the mad science involved, I hope we work things out with a dodo or mammoth or auroch or something before meddling with more-or-less humans. [EDIT: Appears to be exaggerated]

This is my nightmare: obsessed student decides to destroy professor’s life with false rumors and allegations.

Most people reading this probably already know that the best birth control in the world is for men. I’m only linking this article because the best pun in the world is the second update at the bottom.

This article is about yet another school shooting where a victim of bullying snaps and unloads a gun on his classmates, but there’s a bit of a twist: the bullies were telling the kid he didn’t have a soul because he was a ginger. This bothers me because society tends to wall off certain areas of insultspace associated with as absolutely unacceptable, and most other areas as obviously all in good fun and if you complain about them you’re just a sore-ass who needs to lighten up. If this kid had been black and shot some people who bullied him with racist taunts, that would be the entire focus of this case. Instead, the article dismisses the taunts as a funny little detail and goes on about how he was reading Eragon at the time instead.

Going to prison increases your future earnings by $11,000 . . . in the crime industry.

An argument that penicillin, rather than birth control, caused the age of free love by eliminating the fear of syphilis?

Two green children wander into town, speaking an unknown language. They will eat only green beans, and when they finally are taught English, they say they come from a world underground where everything is green. One gets sick and dies, the other gets taken in, grows up, and marries a local official. All in a day’s work in medieval England.

Just so that you don’t let media selection bias totally shape your opinions: the French have intervened in Mali’s civil war, easily toppled a violent and dictatorial Islamist militia, been greeted as liberators by the populace, been given an impromptu parade, and had a bunch of Malinese citizens beg them to stick around.

A claim: up until the mid-1600s, the majority of slaves in the New World – over 100,000 of them – were not African but Irish and Irish people were treated even worse than Africans because apparently religious hatred trumps racial hatred if you’re a 17th century Anglo-American. Also contains an interesting economic example of unfortunate incentives: indentured servants were usually treated worse than slaves, because masters’ self-interest was to work the servants to death before their term of indenture ran out whereas it was always useful to make sure your slaves were still around tomorrow.

Fun even if you don’t like or know anything about football: concept pictures of Superbowl matchups. You can find an answer key here.

“President Lyndon B. Johnson was known as an owner of an amphibious car. Apparently he liked to scare new visitors to his ranch by driving them downhill in his amphicar directly into his property’s lake, all the while shouting that the brakes had broken.” Man, they don’t make presidents like they used to.

This article’s title gimmick – South Dakota School of Mines Grads Earn More Than Harvard Grads is technically true, but only at the entry level. But even the mid-career numbers aren’t too far apart – Harvard grads get $116,000, and South Dakota Mining grads $96000. And out-of-state tuition at the latter is “only” about $10K/year. Although “go to mining engineering school!” is probably not a great idea for my particular set of career worries, it seems like possibly a good solution for other people in closely related positions.

Significant only because it suggests there are still people surprised by this: AI prescribes better treatment than doctors.

Researchers investigating the link between violent video games and violent personality usually find some sort of vague weak positive results. But I wasn’t aware that a closely related study – investigating the link between violent video game sales numbers and crime rate numbers – find a significant decrease in crime when video game sales go up. Although this is an epidemiological study which “controls for confounders”, which I don’t trust further than I can throw, it gains some credibility in that it reminds me of the very similar result that pornography has been found to decrease rape, possibly by providing an outlet for the relevant impulses. It seems at least plausible that violent video games might work the same way, and it’s a fun theory to shove in certain annoying people’s faces.

Speaking of which, Iceland tries to ban Internet porn. Iceland is coming dangerously close to losing their position on my “Not actually too dumb, for a country” list. [EDIT: Appears to be exaggerated.]

Remember that claim that “Jewish genius” was mysteriously disappearing but that Ivy League schools were still discriminating in favor of Jews against Asians? It now seems this was just bad statistics, which Andrew Gelman has proceeded to debunk.

A lot of people use the example of Vioxx (a very useful painkiller later found to increase the risk of heart attacks) ever getting approved by the FDA as proof that the medical system sucks. I am not sure of my opinion on that, but think that Vioxx (literally the only drug that could help certain people in constant pain) then getting totally demonized in overreaction until eventually it was forced off the market (as opposed to just getting a “warning: slightly increased risk of heart attacks” label) is proof that the medical system sucks. Possibly relevant to the controversy is that a much more commonly used painkiller, diclofenac, is now found to be just as likely to give you a heart attack as Vioxx. And yet no one has stopped using diclofenac, even though there are a bunch of perfectly good alternatives which wasn’t the case with Vioxx at all.

Dogs seem to have theory of mind – they are more likely to steal food in the dark, when they think a human can’t see them, then in the light when they expect to get caught. Also in animal deception news: cheating monkeys try to hide their infidelity.

Wanna feel slightly more objectified than you did earlier today? Anthropometric and Socioeconomic Matching on the Marriage Market will tell you exactly how much each of your unattractive qualities contributes to the eventual mediocreness of the man or woman you will have to settle for marrying.

Oooh, even more objectification: scientists looking at scans of your brain structure can now determine your political beliefs with 83% accuracy. While having no specific critique of the data, I still find some of these platitudes a bit unsatisfying. “Liberals are more willing than conservatives to accept risk”? Really? What about the risk of starting or intervening in a war? Or the risk of replacing our known-to-be-mediocre government services with private ones that might be either terrible or awesome? Or the risk of something going wrong in your life so that you need the social safety net? Or the risk of catastrophic global warming? Or…or…or..!

Originally saw this .gif titled Burning calcium supplements summons Cthulhu. It did not disappoint. [EDIT: Appears to actually be mercury thiocyanate]

I read Al-Jazeera for the lack of silly meaningless pop news stories, and every so often they surprise me with a silly meaningless pop news story anyway and it is usually awesome. Here is “Gangnam Style”, Gaza-style.

A little while back we discussed whether people strongly identified with their genders, which led to a thread in comments where my mostly male readership debated how they would react to a omnipotent being’s request to turn them into girls. In case you were wondering about Orthodox Judaism’s answer to that question, apparently every morning all male Orthodox Jews say a prayer thanking God for not making them a woman.

In old-timey math, the eighth power of a number was called its zenzizenzizensicus. Come back, old-timey math! We still love you!

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18 Responses to Links for February 2013

  1. Deiseach says:

    That study about politics and the brain depresses me (and not for the reasons you might think).

    I had hoped the way the article was written (“Being a member of party X means your brain is set up like this!”) was just down to crappy journalism, but no: if I am to believe what has been quoted is accurate, one of the researchers really does think that.

    ““If you went to Vegas, you won’t be able to tell who’s a Democrat or who’s a Republican, but the fact that being a Republican changes how your brain processes risk and gambling is really fascinating,” says lead researcher Darren Schreiber, a University of Exeter professor who’s currently teaching at Central European University in Budapest. “It suggests that politics alters our worldview and alters the way our brains process.”

    The only way I can express how I demur from this is in these terms – No, you muppet! Saying that “Republicans have these brain traits and Democrats have these brain traits” does not mean that being a Republican or Democratic party supporter causes these traits; isn’t it more likely that “People who are more cautious/conservative/family-oriented tend to join organisations that mirror their views, and people who are more outgoing/prefer to be part of large social movements/individualistic tend to join organisations that exhibit those qualities”?

    To give this farrago any validity, I’d like to see it repeated on subjects who aren’t American (and so don’t divide along the Red State/Blue State line that seems to be so appealing) and from various political/social parties. How about members of the Communist Party of America – do they have ‘Democrat’ or ‘Republican’ brains? What about Whigs versus Tories? Fianna Fáil versus Fine Gael?

    You might just as well deduce from this study that people who vote Democrat are more likely to blow the rent money at roulette and plunge their families into poverty! (Risk-taking, more social- than family-oriented brain region activity, tolerant of uncertainty).

    And I can’t believe that the magazine didn’t take the opportunity to quote Gilbert and Sullivan, who got there before Darren Schreiber:

    often think it’s comical
    How Nature always does contrive
    That every boy and every gal
    That’s born into the world alive
    Is either a little Liberal,
    Or else a little Conservative!

    Anyway, I can’t believe

    • Deiseach says:

      To make the point I didn’t quite clearly make in the tl;dr comment above; this study is like saying “Being a member of the Jam Appreciation Society changes the plastic study of your brain so that you like jam.”

      Isn’t it more likely that if I previously like jam a lot, then when I find a society devoted to the appreciation of jam, I will join it? And if the society makes me like jam even more, it’s only building on what’s already there, not changing my mind? Now, if I joined the Movement for the Abolition of Preserves and repudiated my former jam-loving ways, that would be proof that ‘joining group X gives you traits A, B and C’.

  2. Apprentice says:

    The Icelandic porn thing is blown way out of proportion. One member of the government has proposed some quixotic idea. Basically no-one else seems to be on board, even in his own party. Nothing is happening and nothing is at all likely to happen.

  3. brian says:

    I believe the “calcium supplement burning” is actually mercury thiocyanate.

  4. Thankfully George managed to turn Neanderbaby into a teachable moment regarding bad science reporting — (I think it also doesn’t hurt for people to start seriously considering the ethical question “If we could, should we create a Neanderthal child?”) He also had no shortage of not-actually-solicited volunteers, hah!

    My favorite version of the story is, of course, the animated version by Taiwan’s Next Media Animation:

  5. Vilhelm S says:

    I thought the thing that upset people about Vioxx was not so much the heart attacks, but rather that Merck covered up the heart attack data in their submission to the FDA. That does seem like someone one would want to strongly smack them down for.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      It has been a long time since I looked into this issue and I remember my conclusion better than I remember my arguments. But I seem to remember that Merck published the study involved, that everyone knew about it and the debate was on whether it really reflected more heart attacks or not, and that after it was firmly decided it really did Merck put a label on the drug saying so.

      And that the entire “cover-up” allegation was over three heart attacks that occurred in the study population which happened after the designated cut-off date for the study and so were not reported. I am pretty big on people sticking to their cutoff dates since not doing that means that you can take advantage of natural time-variability in the occurrence of events to end your study during a period that suits your narrative and so bias your results in whatever direction you choose. It’s not totally clear to me that these scientists acted wrongly, although I admit it has been a long time since I knew the whole story.

      In any case, if it had been decided they acted wrongly then sure, give Merck a huge fine, destroy the company, whatever, but don’t let a useful drug get taken off the market just to spite your face.

      • Randy M says:

        “In any case, if it had been decided they acted wrongly then sure, give Merck a huge fine, destroy the company, whatever, but don’t let a useful drug get taken off the market just to spite your face.”

        That’s the same arguement for convicting someone based on evidence obtained without a search warrant, isn’t it?

        • Scott Alexander says:

          I want to get very outraged and say “No it’s not!”, but now I can’t remember what the argument against doing that with evidence obtained without a search warrant is.

          • Randy M says:

            I’m not sure why outraged; personally I find it convincing. Not, say, using coerced confessions, but say you find the murder weapon without a warrant, suspects fingerprints & victims blood on a knife. Do we let a murderer loose in order to perserve the system? I’d say no, but the police who violated the rules regarding searches should be fined, fired, and possibly horsewhipped as well.

        • Alex V. says:

          No. The equivalent for dismissing illegally obtained evidence would be to revoke Merck’s patents regarding this drug (and thus make big pharma more reserved in doing bad things for profit). Same way, the equivalent for taking a useful drug off the market would be something along the lines of not just ignoring inadmissible evidence, but dismissing all other legitimate evidence too because some of the evidence was inadmissible.

  6. Joe says:

    It would be interesting to know how orthodox or even secular Jews would react to being turned into Gentiles.

  7. Doug S. says:

    Researchers investigating the link between violent video games and violent personality usually find some sort of vague weak positive results. But I wasn’t aware that a closely related study – investigating the link between violent video game sales numbers and crime rate numbers – find a significant decrease in crime when video game sales go up.

    Video games are relatively cheap for the number of hours of entertainment they provide, and they’re played indoors in private. Perhaps video games decrease crime by simply soaking up the free time of people who would otherwise be out causing trouble? (On the other hand, this is equally true of television watching, so never mind.)

  8. atreic says:

    I got a bit confused by the superbowl one, as it feels like you’ve linked to the answers, not the pictures, and you have to click another link to get to the pictures…

  9. Are you sure you have the right link for Jim’s text accelerator? The software at your link has a list of features not including speed reading, but about text manipulation and formatting instead. And that software is made by Tordex, a Russian company, which would be unusual if you met Jim in Boston.