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Links for November

Jeff Kaufman continues to survey the history of efficient charity with an excellent post about John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. After a traumatic experience in which he wanted to give a poor person money to buy a coat but found he had none left to give, he resolved to consistently give away all but 28 pounds of his 1400 pound income. This seems sufficient to earn Methodism second place in the ‘Most Disappointing Religion Considering How Wonderful A Person Its Founder Was’ stakes.

Speaking of religion, on Leah’s blog I made fun of how religious people say “because of human dignity” when something weirds them out but they have no argument against it. Some people doubted me, or thought I was making a pattern out of noise. To these people I present Three Parent Babies Incompatible With Human Dignity.

Just some perfectly ordinary cool science: Molecule from venom of Chinese centipede could lead to painkiller as effective as morphine. The theory is that these centipedes knock out their victims’ ability to feel pain so they can prey on them more effectively, and that some of these chemicals might be able to disrupt pain function in humans as well. An elegant combination of evolutionary biology, molecular biology, and medicine. But this isn’t just ordinary cool science! Pain is one of the biggest and most debilitating medical problems in the world, closely followed by the negative effects of opiate pain medication. Anything that can substitute for that would be a godsend.

I want one of these tiny mobile houses. I’m still trying to decide whether I’ll use it to drive across the continent in style, or just as a safe quiet place in the backyard if I one day have a big noisy family. Also need to figure out how I can have both one of these and a yurt without it being overkill.

This might be an honest-to-goodness shock level 2 technology: Craig Venter building digital-biological converter. Imagine being able to print any protein, DNA sequence, or microscopic life-form you wanted. Venter thinks the application is hospitals using it to produce drugs quickly or maybe produce bacteriophages to fight specific bacteria. As revolutionary as that would be, if these ever become privately available then enforcing prescription rules and drug patents becomes as hard as fighting music piracy. Also, biological progress accelerates by a factor of a hundred. Also, we all die of bioterrorism.

Also, a fully generalizable approach to killing microbes with no side effects or vulnerability to resistant organisms.

Stanford Ovshinsky, the greatest inventor you’ve never heard of. Flat screens, phase change memory, CDs/DVDs, the rechargeable NIMH battery. And he did it all without going to college.

Another curveball in IQ research: performance on culturally loaded tests is actually more heritable than performance on culture-neutral tests. They give a very culturalist explanation of the finding, but I’m not convinced. An interesting corollary – the Jensen Effect now seems to argue somewhat against race-IQ differences being genetic.

And speaking of implausible effects on intelligence, the heartwarming story of how one Mexican teacher turned his class of underperforming uninspired lower-class students into mathematical supergeniuses using revolutionary teaching techniques. I will be even more disappointed than usual when someone debunks this article.

The newest episode in the “Scientists Discover The Reason We Need To Sleep!” saga is a study from the University of Rochester saying brain cells need to shrink to allow the clearance of metabolic waste. I like this one less than the old “neurons need to normalize their connection strengths” theory (also, it sounds kind of hippie with the whole toxin removal angle) but only time will tell. I’m working with a doctor who specializes in sleep medicine next week and I’ll ask her what she thinks.

Fermi’s Paradox is why, if there are so many opportunities for life to evolve in the Universe, we aren’t seeing any of it. Philosopher Clement Vidal points out that actually, there are certain binary star systems that astronomers can’t currently explain, but which look sort of like what we would expect if a superadvanced civilization had modified stars into power plants. Warning: paper has not yet been confirmed as non-stupid by a legitimate astronomer.

If you want to experience life-disrupting LSD flashbacks without the hassle of actually taking LSD, your best bet might be watching YouTube’s Ten Hours Of Infinite Fractal And Falling Shepard’s Tone

You remember the Invisible Gorilla Test? Now they’ve done the same thing, except that this time they ask radiologists to evaluate a patient’s lungs for potential cancer, and see how many of those radiologists fail to notice that the patient’s lungs also contain a gorilla. I am not making this up. One day, we will tell our grandchildren about the bad old days when science was about discovering bosons and stuff instead of just cataloguing the situations in which we can trick people into ignoring gorillas.

I dare you to read this interview with the author of Two Serpents Rise (h/t Leah) and get through the whole thing without tab-switching to Amazon to buy the book (I couldn’t; it should arrive tomorrow).

Acute Reflex Seizures Produced By Thinking (full text with free Medscape subscription) is a paper on the titular phenomenon of people who get seizures when they think about specific things. One man had seizures whenever he thought about a toothbrush or toothpaste; another when he thought about his family home. No word yet on whether these can be treated with zorninone.

Watch The K Foundation Burn A Million Quid is a video of a band/surrealist art group burning one million British pounds. Key quote: “Every day I wake up and I think ‘Oh God, I’ve burnt a million quid'”

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30 Responses to Links for November

  1. B.B. says:

    Scott Alexander said:
    Another curveball in IQ research: performance on culturally loaded tests is actually more heritable than performance on culture-neutral tests. They give a very culturalist explanation of the finding, but I’m not convinced. An interesting corollary – the Jensen Effect now seems to argue somewhat against race-IQ differences being genetic.

    Hereditarian blogger Chuck of Occidental Ascent criticizes the study here.

  2. gwern says:

    Watch The K Foundation Burn A Million Quid is a video of a band/surrealist art group burning one million British pounds. Key quote: “Every day I wake up and I think ‘Oh God, I’ve burnt a million quid’”

    My commentary: https://plus.google.com/103530621949492999968/posts/dWAvxiGPQG3

    • I’m assuming that people build up a system one connection between currency and the valuable stuff it can be exchanged for, and probably that anything resembling humans is going to do this.

      From which I derive a theory that artists exist to grab system one in interesting ways.

      • Anonymous says:

        Hm. A less charitable way to phrase this is to say people were too stupid to understand that this was charity.

    • Anonymous says:

      Huh. That’s actually some very good commentary. Go read it, other people reading the comments section.

    • Vilhelm S says:

      The Bank of England has an inflation target. Burning a bunch of pounds will not make other people richer, it will just cause the BoE to print a little bit extra money to compensate.

      • Vilhelm S says:

        Or, I guess that actually does make other people richer. I wish this blog had a retract feature.

        • gwern says:

          Besides that, I’d express skepticism about whether their target is worth the paper it’s printed on. The Federal Reserve has a dual mandate to minimize inflation and maximize employment, and yet, someone who was watching over the past 5 years or more could be forgiven for assuming it was a single mandate.

  3. Aaron Brown says:

    Methodism

    I guess now is a good time to again publicize my personal hobbyhorse of getting people to refer to Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It” as “The Methodist Hymn”.

  4. g says:

    second place in the ‘Most Disappointing Religion Considering How Wonderful A Person Its Founder Was’ stakes

    What’s in first place? (A plausible guess would be Christianity, but surely you aren’t considering Christianity and Methodism two different religions. Buddhism?)

  5. Douglas Knight says:

    Scott, you are very vulnerable to people who assert that they have arguments.

  6. Deiseach says:

    “It’s not clear why tests such as vocabulary would have a higher cognitive demand than tests that are less culturally-loaded, but more cognitively complex (e.g., tests of abstract reasoning).”

    Because on an abstract reasoning test you can work out for yourself “Oh! If this thing goes with that thing, then the other thing over there belongs here too!”, whereas on a spelling/vocabulary test, “though, through, plough and slough” all contain the “-ough” element, but only two of them rhyme (sound the same). Also, if you spell the word how it sounds, “plow” will get you marked wrong if you’re doing a test with British spelling (and so your score is lowered), but it’s perfectly good American spelling.

  7. Vaniver says:

    I dare you to read this interview with the author of Two Serpents Rise (h/t Leah) and get through the whole thing without tab-switching to Amazon to buy the book (I couldn’t; it should arrive tomorrow).

    Challenge accepted (and completed).

    (Of course, it probably helps that I have a blanket ban against buying fiction until the semester is over.)

  8. Ryan Reich says:

    I know you’re just being irreverent with the invisible gorilla article, but if you replace “gorilla” with “other kind of tumor”, you get a real problem. My father had a seizure some years ago that led to him being diagnosed with a benign meningioma: a tumor pressing on the brain. The MRI showed a very obvious, rather large tumor, which was succesfully removed. The next year, another MRI found a second tumor, which was thought to be of great significance because it had apparently grown so quickly that it wasn’t even visible in the first MRI only a short time earlier. So he had a second surgery. Later, he looked at his first MRI himself and found that it was clearly visible, off to the side, while the first and larger tumor was captured face-on. He showed this picture to everyone else in the family, all of us, like his own doctor, completely overlooking the pretty big dent in his brain. I can only speculate that with the focus on that one big tumor, obviously the problem, the doctor had no cognitive reason to interpret features on the margin of the image.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I’m more surprised by this one than the gorilla. Cancers often metastasize, so I would expect radiologists to be specifically trained that if they see one cancer they should look for others. Granted, meningiomae shouldn’t themselves metastasize, but I’d still expect the training to be in effect or for the radiologist to have some uncertainty that that was what it was.

  9. >You remember the Invisible Gorilla Test? Now they’ve done the same thing, except that this time they ask radiologists to evaluate a patient’s lungs for potential cancer, and see how many of those radiologists fail to notice that the patient’s lungs also contain a gorilla.

    Thank you, Scott, for the hardest laugh I have had in a long time.

  10. Anonymous says:

    The real reason we go to sleep is because we live in a real-time massive-multiplayer computer simulation with suppression of our real memories. Our sleep phases are pre-scheduled and triggered by a feeling of tiredness. While we sleep, we are awake in the real world.

    • Anonymous says:

      Oh and by the way, people only die if they want to leave the simulation permanently to do something else. All deaths are pre-scheduled during the sleep phases, by the people who die. Most real people live in better simulations. Only a small fraction of nutjobs – us – lives as crappy as we do because we think it’s “art”.

  11. MugaSofer says:

    “I dare you to read this interview with the author of Two Serpents Rise (h/t Leah) and get through the whole thing without tab-switching to Amazon to buy the book (I couldn’t; it should arrive tomorrow).”

    Failed.

    • Andy says:

      Somewhat succeeded. Always have to read in published order, so I couldn’t resist buying the prequel.

      Also thank Bezos for the Kindle because $3 Kindle edition vs. $13 paperback? YES.

  12. Douglas Knight says:

    It is interesting that you name your linkdumps “Links for November,” ie, “Links for you to read in November,” while most people name them “Links from October,” ie, “Links I found in October.

  13. Melasin says:

    Speaking of religion, on Leah’s blog I made fun of how religious people say “because of human dignity” when something weirds them out but they have no argument against it. Some people doubted me, or thought I was making a pattern out of noise. To these people I present Three Parent Babies Incompatible With Human Dignity.

    There’s no evidence at all in the link you provide that the signatories of that declaration are religious, or that their declaration is informed by religion. To me, the pattern is that it’s liberal humanists who rant on about human dignity in weird situations, and I (biased!) think this example better matches my pattern than yours.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Also possible. I was just using the link to point out that “human dignity” is indeed used in that way.

      • Anonymous says:

        Animal dignity (whatever that is) is also used that way sometimes, e.g. against genetic manipulation of animals so that they suffer less pain. Apparently that violates their dignity, while mutilating, slaughtering and eating them doesn’t.

        Dignity is one of those ethical get-out-of-jail cards that lets you signal what a good person you are or condemn how bad others are, without committing to any cost on your part or offer any real pragmatic objection.

  14. Anonymous says:

    As a graduate student in astrophysics, I feel compelled to point that Vidal’s paper has serious flaws. The paper he quotes finds perfectly good explanation for the heavier elements as products of natural fusion, and Vidal’s suggestion that ETI fuses these elements somehow (it is very hard to do so, and little energy is gained) and then discards them as waste has little going for it. Anyway, there are many minor anomalies in astrophysics, some get solved and some get posed every year, and that is little reason to postulate ETI as the cause instead.

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  16. Brian says:

    I just finished reading Two Serpents Rise, which I got because of the interview you link to. Extremely impressive, and deeply engaging. Maybe I dom’t read enough fantasy, but I think it’s one of the most imaginative worlds since Tolkein.

    I’d love to hear what you thought of it.