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More Links For February 2014

Meditating may decrease the need for sleep by about two hours a day. But you have to meditate about two hours a day to gain the benefits, so it all checks out.

A predictable yet surprising consequences of how we judge value relative to counterfactuals: Olympic bronze medalists are happier with the outcome than silver medalists. Bronze medalists were a hair away from not winning a medal at all; silver medalists were a hair away from getting gold.

I’ve previously blogged on how belief in Hell appears to make people more moral. Here’s a claim that it decreases subjective well-being and life satisfaction. Anecdotally, a lot of my psych patients are obsessed with the idea of Hell and find it really personally distressing on a more-than-intellectual level.

Dumb Starbucks tests the limits of parody law. I cannot believe this is a real thing.

Physicists Say Consciousness Is Like A State Of Matter, says an article that doesn’t really give good reasons why consciousness is like a state of matter. Included anyway for Tegmark interview and the discussion of Hopfield nets. I suspect dead end, but I’m happy to see any non-trivial non-ignore-the-hard-parts discussion of consciousness going on.

I keep seeing contrary studies about the advantages of single-sex education or lack thereof, but the latest is that single-sex education has no advantages over co-ed schools.

Singapore has one of the best education systems in the world. What do they do? Everything we are told to avoid: “rely heavily on textbooks, worksheets, worked examples and lots of drill and practice. They also strongly emphasise mastery of specific procedures and the ability to represent problems clearly, especially in mathematics. Classroom talk is teacher-dominated and generally avoids extended discussion…[they] make limited use of checking a student’s prior knowledge or communicating learning goals and achievement standards. In addition, while teachers monitor student learning and provide feedback and learning support to students, they largely do so in ways that focus on whether or not students know the right answer, rather than on their level of understanding.” I think there might be some value in drawing a thick bright line in the sand against educational fads, but man, they are literally old-school.

The Enigma of Blind Tom Wiggins

Another skirmish in the diet wars: people who drink skim or low-fat milk end up fatter than people who drink whole milk. Not sure how much prospective design adjusts for obvious confounder, but once you get sixteen studies that say the same thing I start being impressed.

Does clostridium perfringens cause multiple sclerosis? I think a lot of doctors expect to find infectious causes for a lot of seemingly-not-infectious diseases, but it’s always devilishly hard to prove. On the other hand, multiple sclerosis is this giant black hole where promising medical theories go to die.

Finally a Bitcoin prediction market.

Simply Statistics thinks the “crisis of reproducibility” in science is worth investigating but kind of overhyped. Mostly in accordance with my thoughts on same

Reddit on Penkovsky, the Soviet double agent who, when exposed, decided to go out with a bang by starting a nuclear war.

H/T nydwracu: Did McDonalds cause the decline of violence in America?

Still more skirmishes in the diet wars: 7 Foods That Were Supposed To Be Unhealthy But Aren’t. Kind of ties into a conversation I had on Facebook a little while back about whether it was crackpot or outrageous to say that nutrition science’s failures caused stupendous death and suffering. Some of these seem broadly correct – coconut oil and eggs, for example. Others I am very skeptical – like salt. But if someone wants to link me to good evidence exonerating salt, I’ll read it (and then go eat lots of French fries).

Hip Gadgets Aren’t Going To Solve Global Poverty, So Stop Making Them. I usually dislike people scoffing at people for trying to solve global poverty the wrong way, because xkcd. But here the author is himself trying to solve global poverty, explains exactly what the problem is, and gives good suggestions on how to make things better.

Pictures of ousted Ukranian leader Victor Yanukovich’s villa. Now I feel sad because I don’t have a frigate.

…but let’s not be too hard on him. Sure, he may have lived in opulence and plenty while his people suffered, but he eats simple bread just like the rest of us. Except his bread is made of solid gold.

During the Battle of Shiloh, some dying Civil War soldiers found their wound started to glow, then miraculously heal. The so-called Angel’s Glow has long been considered a superstition. Now scientists think they have found a rational basis for the story – nematodes and commensal bacteria

Since we’ve been talking rape statistics lately (NO I WILL NOT LINK TO THE POST, PLEASE JUST FORGET ABOUT IT ALREADY), here is an interesting case of rape statistics getting bogged down in – of all things – something like the Oxford comma.

If we want to save elephants, maybe we should farm them for ivory (h/t Paul Crowley). There’s a strong argument that legalizing any ivory would make the ivory trade much easier and so enable poachers of wild elephants. Then there’s the economic counterargument, that as long as ivory is banned that just makes it super-expensive and makes poaching really really lucrative. Probably should be considered alongside the bizarre and horrible story of endangered oryx ranching laws.

Tumblr (I would credit people, but I can’t figure out their quotation system) makes some interesting points about the phrase “you need psychiatric help”. Speaking from the other perspective, it is really intimidating when people come in expecting you to be able to solve everything with a single pill. Psychiatrists, psychologists, and other professionals are one weapon people can use to cope with mental illness, and they’re a powerful one that I would strongly suggest everyone consider, but they are not Super Magic Solution. So yes, tell people to get professional help. But also help them get friends, support, education, and healthy habits. Psychiatrists aren’t always great at helping people out with these, and even when they are they can only go a tiny part of the way.

Mental Floss: Russian travel tips for visiting America. Don’t talk about the magnetic storm!

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53 Responses to More Links For February 2014

  1. Prussian Prince of Automata says:

    Not that you don’t have a lot on your plate right now, but doing some followup into the Russian-American etiquette article brought me to this and it seems like the sort of health weird claim you’re pretty good at evaluating. Up for parsing tons and tons of (mostly Russian) research on the effects of magnetic storms on psychiatric health / behavior?

    • Charlie says:

      Yeah I feel like the Salon article was just “Nutritionists say too much salt can be bad for you. Silly nutritionists, don’t you know too little salt can be bad for you? Sooo zany!”

      • gattsuru says:

        With some bonus ‘all natural snake oil’, just in case they hadn’t undermined a perfectly good argument enough.

  2. Hainish says:

    Re. Singapore and education: Notice the comments (at MR) saying that the pedagogy is irrelevant and that their success is due to social factors? Liberals* (esp. those supporting teachers’ unions) make the EXACT SAME arguments. It’s scary, really.

    *liberals who I don’t agree with, to be precise

    • Multiheaded says:

      Well, doesn’t Norway has the other best school system in the world by doing the exact opposite of Singapore’s? Yep, it’s kind of funny really.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        You mean Finland, not Norway.

        No, all the East Asian samples beat Finland, except Macau. I like Sailer’s chart.

      • Hainish says:

        (Assuming you mean Finland for Norway) That’s certainly the impression you would get from reading articles in the American press about education in Finland. However, it’s not an accurate impression. Finland has a well-defined national curriculum, uses explicit teacher-led instruction, and generally avoids the ineffective practices currently trending in US classrooms.

        Reporting on Finland tends to focus on more-exciting out-of-classroom aspects, such as equality. And recess. For some reason, many people really want to believe that what happens inside the classroom (i.e., boring old transmission of knowledge) is irrelevant to achievement. (Teachers seem to want to believe this more than anyone else.)

      • Multiheaded says:

        I’m generally stupid.

  3. Douglas Knight says:

    The single-sex education meta-analysis is here (or here).

  4. Alexander Stanislaw says:

    Does the argument that Singaporean schools are substantially better control for IQ?

    • pwyll says:

      No, predictably and unfortunately. The commenters at MR are pressing this point, e.g. “This isn’t proof that the Singaporean education system works. This is proof that any education system will work if you fill it with Singaporeans.”

    • Douglas Knight says:

      It just is an IQ test. It would be difficult to control for IQ, though one could interpret PISA results at different ages as the result of the educational system. I’ve never looked at that.

      There is a fair amount of variation in PISA results across Europe. Most striking is a half sigma difference between Finland and Sweden. But I think that there have been half sigma differences in different attempts to measure the IQ of Sweden.

      • Alexander Stanislaw says:

        That’s a good point and comparing students at different ages is a clever solution.

        It doesn’t seem justified to assume that differences in PISA scores are due to differences in the education systems. Is anyone (who is comparing education systems) not making this assumption?

  5. Anon says:

    IIRC Singapore’s educational system mostly only looks good on paper. They cheat like crazy.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Why would students care enough to cheat at PISA evaluations?

      • ozymandias says:

        There’s lots of kinds of cheating teachers can do without student permission, such as erasing wrong answers and bubbling in the correct one. For some kinds of cheating, such as the teacher putting the right answers on the board, putting in the right answers is about as hard as bubbling in random answers.

        • Randy M says:

          When I was teaching, I saw some other teachers give a practice test that was the actual test they would administer the next day (though NOT ever a standardized test, afaik).
          I asked about it and was told something to the effect of “They’re not going to remember it anyway”, and they were probably right.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          I’m pretty sure Anon was referring to a reputation of East Asian students for individual cheating. I’ve never heard of students or teachers, anywhere, cheating on PISA. There is some flexibility in the sampling which appears to be cheated at higher levels, which are the only levels that care, not that it matters much for them, either.

          A google search for “singapore cheating” does not produce academic results, unlike “korea cheating.” The results for “singapore exam cheating” are pretty old.

    • Army1987 says:

      I’d guess Italians cheat a lot too, so even when people cheat some are worse at it than others.

    • John Maxwell says:

      That’s only one way that the measure of how good an education system is can be flawed. If Singaporean students learn how to solve problems that look like the ones that they’ve solved already, but not the deep underlying concepts that would allow them to invent entirely new problem-solving methods, then they may do great on standardized tests but poorly when it comes to inventing new stuff.

  6. James Babcock says:

    > But if someone wants to link me to good evidence exonerating salt, I’ll read it (and then go eat lots of French fries).

    Don’t do that unless you’ve actually checked the nutrition facts panel; most french fries aren’t salty! They’re salt *coated*, which makes them test like they have more salt than they really do. My personal hypothesis about salt is that salt homeostasis is a thing, we crave it when we need it, and when we crave salt, we eat… potatoes, candy, MSG, and other crap that has fairly little to do with it. Telling people to cut salt from their diet further damages the temporal connection between salt craving and salt consumption, making the effect worse.

    Meanwhile studies that’re trying to measure salt consumption, are actually measuring the amount of salt in peoples’ urine – which is excess salt that the body’s trying to get rid of, represents the difference between need and consumption, and diverges from consumption in all the cases that matter.

  7. Vaniver says:

    The original tumblr post is by youneedacat and is here. Incidentally, I think tumblr’s quoting system is actually really nice, because it rewards both the original content creator and every person in the link between that content creator and you- so people don’t seem to spend any serious effort passing things off as their own when they could just hit reblog.

  8. Gabriel says:

    Nathan Fielder is responsible for the Dumb Starbucks thing. It’s a bit for his show Nathan For You, which is far and away the best comedy on television.

  9. Ialdabaoth says:

    So yes, get professional help. But also get friends, support, healthy life habits, and education.

    For some of us, this is a particularly nasty catch-22 – it’s incredibly difficult to gain friends and support when one’s social interactions are fundamentally maladaptive, and it’s incredibly difficult to properly utilize professional help to build properly adaptive modes of social interaction without friends and a good support network.

    In my more cynical moments, I tend to think that the real secret to surviving mental illness is to not have a family that would feel better about a dead child than a crazy one.

    • anonymous says:

      I have some unfortunate anecdotal evidence to support the cynical view.

      • Ialdabaoth says:

        Most people who’ve experienced this sort of thing do, but who wants to listen to them?

        One of the interesting things I’ve observed about the interaction of status and mental illness, is that the status loss you suffer from displaying symptoms of a mental illness seems inversely proportional to your status sans symptoms. That is, the poorer / less intelligent / less attractive / less well-connected you are, the nastier people will react to signs of depression or psychosis, in addition to the general nastiness that rich / smart / attractive / well-connected people reserve for those who aren’t.

        If I was a particular kind of reactionary, I’d note that this was a good thing, both because it ensures that the unfit are excluded from society before those with sentimental temperaments are tempted to waste resources helping them (ensuring in the long term that they don’t survive long enough to breed true), and because it ensures that those who have other clearly desirable traits tend to be given an extra chance (ensuring in the long term that we don’t ditch useful traits just because they happen to have got mingled in with detrimental ones).

        Since I’m not that kind of reactionary, I instead just stare in horror when I’m not on the verge of starving in the streets, or scream in terror when I am.

  10. Gunlord says:

    Fascinating article on the blind ex-slave Tom Wiggins, I hadn’t heard of his story before. Thanks!

  11. Thomas says:

    edit: deleted for redundancy

  12. Doug S. says:

    Truth behind Mark’s words unveiled,
    Second hurt more than eighth will

    – Patrick Chapin, second place finisher at the Magic: the Gathering 2007 World Championships

    Fifth through eighth is the Magic world equivalent of a bronze medal…

  13. Meredith L. Patterson says:

    The Tegmark paper you are looking for is http://arxiv.org/abs/1401.1219.

  14. BenSix says:

    Did McDonalds cause the decline of violence in America?

    The English journalist John Rentoul coined the term QTWTAIN, or Questions to Which the Answer is No. It has suffered from overuse but it is amusing how often it is applicable.

  15. Ben Mahala says:

    “Except his bread is made of solid gold.”

    Link says that the thing is hollow and weights 2 kg.

  16. Cyan says:

    The tl;dr on the poverty article:

    1. Nifty gadgets look cool to Western eyes but frequently don’t find markets in Africa.
    2. Much of the cost of getting items to market in Africa comes from traversing the supply chain to get to the retailer.

    I’ll add: and the methods to attack the supply chain problem are well-understood already — Coke’s been working on that problem for years.

  17. Johannes D says:

    A predictable yet surprising consequences of how we judge value relative to counterfactuals: Olympic bronze medalists are happier with the outcome than silver medalists. Bronze medalists were a hair away from not winning a medal at all; silver medalists were a hair away from getting gold.

    I hypothesize this effect is strongest in playoff-style team sports like ice hockey where the difference between silver and bronze is very pronounced: the bronze medalists won their last match, the silver medalists lost theirs.

  18. gwern says:

    > Meditating may decrease the need for sleep by about two hours a day. But you have to meditate about two hours a day to gain the benefits, so it all checks out.

    Curious, but plausible. I’ve been meditating on random days for a while and plan to check this at some point.

    > Finally a Bitcoin prediction market.

    Predictious has been around for a while, and while they are not nearly as awful as say Bets of Bitcoin, their fees are still high enough to discourage much activity. What I’m interested in is a new proposal for a fully-distributed low-fee Bitcoin prediction market: http://lesswrong.com/lw/jpj/open_thread_for_february_1824_2014/aleh

    > Simply Statistics thinks the “crisis of reproducibility” in science is worth investigating but kind of overhyped. Mostly in accordance with my thoughts on same

    I think Leek is totally wrong, his criticisms are nitpicking, and it’s like his earlier p-values paper: he insists on only ever looking on the bright side of things (eg his paper implying a false positive rate of 15% or whatever – and omitting that this was a lower bound).

  19. gattsuru says:

    Anecdotally, a lot of my psych patients are obsessed with the idea of Hell and find it really personally distressing on a more-than-intellectual level.

    That’s rather interesting, both since it seems a lot different from the normal targets of a lot of classical anxiety, and since mainstream Christian dogma on the topic should make for a relatively simple ‘out’.

    But if someone wants to link me to good evidence exonerating salt, I’ll read it (and then go eat lots of French fries).

    This metastudy seems to be the popular go-to example. It seems to show similar negative effects to low levels of salt intake as to high levels for the more common high-risk groups, and there’s a pretty wide band of intake that even many high-risk groups can take without seeing any problems.

    You probably shouldn’t go munching down French Fries, but that’s more because they’re a boatload of grease and starch and not much else.

  20. Brian says:

    Gotta say, if there’s a market for exotic antelope trophies in the States and the animals are critically endangered in Africa, setting up ranches in Texas where hunters can go to shoot them seems like a pretty good way of serving demand A without damaging population B. It’s not like captive-bred animals come entangled with some kind of spooky action-at-a-distance business that makes them ethical to shoot when wild populations on the other side of the world are robust enough and unethical otherwise; the objections raised in the SciAm article look like they have more to do with purity considerations than anything properly consequential.

    I do understand that there are qualms about doing similar things with e.g. exotic birds in the pet trade, and the reason why is that it’s easy to pass off wild-caught birds as captive-bred, but I imagine it’d be a lot harder to smuggle a two-hundred-pound oryx through customs.

    I’m a little more hesitant about doing the same for elephants, partly because they’re a lot smarter and partly because ivory’s a different kind of commodity than hunting trophies and I haven’t thought hard about how the economics works out. But the concept seems sound if all its knock-on effects end up checking out.

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      Gotta say, if there’s a market for exotic antelope trophies in the States and the animals are critically endangered in Africa, setting up ranches in Texas where hunters can go to shoot them seems like a pretty good way of serving demand A without damaging population B. It’s not like captive-bred animals come entangled with some kind of spooky action-at-a-distance business that makes them ethical to shoot when wild populations on the other side of the world are robust enough and unethical otherwise [….]

      I agree with what you almost* said here, which might also be expressed as “The lesser evil is acceptable only as long as the greater evil lasts,” and/or “Don’t allow the greater evil by rejecting the lesser evil; remember the lesser evil can be temporary (till the greater evil ceases, or till a better solution is found.)”

      * Or perhaps you did say it, and I almost heard it.

      • Brian says:

        I agree in principle, and would probably pitch this plan to environmental advocates in these terms, but I don’t think the principle actually applies here — at least as long as you’re not opposed to trophy hunting in general.

        I’m aware that shooting captive-bred animals from a species that’s endangered in the wild is squicky to a lot of people — it’s a little squicky to me, in fact. But as far as I can tell this squick response doesn’t have any rational basis: as long as it stays easier and cheaper to breed the animals in captivity than to illegally import endangered wild specimens, the incentives line up in the right way and no evil (here defined as a systemic tendency to make the world worse) is introduced by the plan.

        (I might also want to see a release program written into policy, so that this sort of business helps make the animals less endangered. But that’s gravy.)

  21. a person says:

    Meditating may decrease the need for sleep by about two hours a day. But you have to meditate about two hours a day to gain the benefits, so it all checks out.

    This seems a lot more potentially important than you’re giving it credit for. Meditation is hugely beneficial, especially if you were to do it for two hours a day, but who has time for that? It’s good to know that you might not actually be spending any of your free time doing it at all.

    • Randy M says:

      I wonder… people often don’t get enough sleep. Maybe some of the beneficial effects of meditation are just due to it mimicing sleep for people who otherwise wouldn’t have gotten enough?

      • misha says:

        Yeah that’s actually the first thing I thought. “If meditation trades off with sleep, maybe it’s basically just sleep”

  22. Alrenous says:

    Yes, the consciousness thing is a dead end. It can’t work as a physical thing. Prooflet by counter-example.

    “perceptronium, defined as the most general substance that feels subjectively self-aware”

    Okay, now give me a list of all perceptronium’s behaviors, except I claim it isn’t self-aware. My model wins by Ockham’s razor. (Does location require self-awareness? Do vibration or emitting virtual particles?) But the future refused to change we still have to explain consciousness.

    Well, you(pl) still have to explain consciousness. I have an explanation.

    The bit about Hopfield nets may mesh with my theory, though. Have you heard about integrated information theory? Stack IIT with nets and they may be onto something…regarding the receiver/physics side of consciousness, anyway.

  23. Troy says:

    On teaching: as others have pointed out, drawing lessons from other countries’ teaching practices is dangerous, because of IQ and cultural differences. Steve Sailer has several nice posts of the dangers of reading too much into PISA scores (and, especially, reporting on PISA scores) more generally: http://isteve.blogspot.com/search/label/PISA

    Even setting aside cultural and IQ differences, I’m skeptical of “one size fits all” teaching methodologies. It depends on the subject matter, it depends on the teacher, and it depends on the individual students. In my own teaching I tend to eschew lecturing and try to focus on facilitating discussion among my students. But I don’t think my way is the only way. Some teachers can do a great job with very traditional lecturing.

    • Anthony says:

      One could look at this post of Sailer’s and notice that Asian-Americans do about as well as other non-south-east-asians. (Guangdong is not in “northeast Asia”.) Are the differences between Asian-Americans and Singaporeans any more significant than those between Switzerland and Belgium?

  24. Stille says:

    On Singapore:they do *a lot* of tutoring, which should up their PISA score.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      I don’t think they do a lot of one-on-one, which is what I mean by “tutoring.” What is pretty uniformly done by East Asians, both at home and abroad, is supplementary classes after school. I’m not aware of any evidence that either kind of supplementation helps.

      A potential way to disentangle East Asian IQ from hours spent on schoolwork is to look at Japanese-Americans (or maybe Japanese-Brazilians). My understanding is that they are pretty laid back about school, unlike in Japan and unlike immigrants from Korea and China. But there aren’t a lot of them, and they are probably systematically different.