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The two economists that have most informed my view of the current macroeconomy are Arnold Kling and Scott Sumner. In both cases, their models and explanations make sense to me.  They use solid reasoning and evidence; I don’t feel I’m getting a lot of hand waving. Unfortunately, at first glance, their views seem mutually exclusive.  Kling believes business cycles are the result of many planning errors by individual agents (for example, this recent post and this follow up).  Sumner believes business cycles are the result of contractionary monetary policy by the central bank (for example, this recent post and this one).

How can they both be right? I think they are operating at different levels. Yes, individual agents make their particular planning decisions.  In aggregate, these decisions drive monetary variables like interest rates, exchange rates, liquidity demand, etc.  However, these variables then feed back into the next round of planning decisions.  Moreover, at least some of these plans take into account the effect of the agent’s actions on the monetary variables.  So you get classic chaotic/complex behavior with temporarily stable attractors, perturbations, and establishing new regimes. There may even be aspects of synchronized chaos. I think the monetary variables are the key emergent phenomena here.  They are like “meta prices” that provide a shared signal across just about every modern economic endeavor.

Food for thought.  I’m going to keep this in mind when processing future articles on the economy and see if it helps my thinking.

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Here is a fascinating discussion on NPR’s Forum from earlier this year on the subject of mercury and fish:

If you’ve listened to this the whole way through (which you should), I’m curious as to how it will affect your habits, if at all.  And why?

Barbara Ehrenreich had an excellent article in yesterday’s New York Times on the many ways that being poor can land you in trouble with the law. One striking example:

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Some of you may recall my post Organic Farming Harms the Environment. As I wrote, one of the things that bugs me about organic proponents is that they act as if there are no tradeoffs.  I don’t understand much about farming, but I do understand something about how economic activity works.  I presume that modern farming has responded to market pressure and evolved to optimize along many different dimensions.  I’m pretty sure you can’t magically improve along one dimension without sacrificing along another dimension.

Thus, I was not surprised to read this article (hat tip to Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution) on modern farming by an honest to goodness family farmer.   It is full of good examples of the tradeoffs I suspected were lurking.  For instance, by using herbicides, farmers reduce the need to till, which is a major source of soil erosion.  Hog crates and turkey cages may seem inhumane, but they prevent sows from killing piglets and turkeys dying from drowning. Crop rotations that decrease the need for synthetic fertilizer increase the amount of water needed to produce the desired crop.

Read the whole thing.  It reinforced my confidence in the general rule of trying to avoid legislating solutions.  Send pricing signals by allocating resource rights and taxing negative externalities.  Then let the market do its optimization.

The following quotes are from a book describing a real set of events:

[The incident] is an extraordinary example of what happens when you get… a dozen people with an average IQ of 160… working in a field in which they collectively have 250 years of experience… employing a ton of leverage.

It’s hard to overstate the significance of a [government-led] rescues of a private [corporation].  If a [company], however large was too big to fail, then what large [company] would ever be allowed to collapse?  The government risked becoming the margin of safety.  No serious consequences had come about in the end from the… near-meltdown.

Was the incident:

a) The savings and loan scandal

b) The collapse of Enron

c) The sub-prime mortgage meltdown

d) none of the above

First correct answer gets to invest in an exciting new bridge project I’m involved with in New York!

It is by now common wisdom that our current financial crisis is due in large part to misplaced incentives in our financial system. Analysts and fund managers were rewarded for short-term thinking and risk-taking. If we can rework our financial system to reward long-term, careful planning, it is often argued, we can avoid collapses like this in the future.

While I agree that misplaced incentives were a fundamental problem, the question of how to change this is rather more deep and complex than I think many people realize.

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I apologize for the non-existent blogging the past few weeks.  I’ve been really busy with my new company.  I’m going to try blogging more short items rather than my trademark essays in the hope that reduced barrier to entry will result in more supply.

First up is a provocative post by the ever-interesting Scott Sumner.  Rafe in particular should read it because Sumner starts from one of Rafe’s favorite premisse that “laws” of nature are purely cognitive constructs.  We should measure them by their usefulness and not ascribe to them any independent existence. So Newton’s laws of motion are useful in certain contexts.  Einstein’s are useful in others.  But neither are ground truth.  Moreover, we will never find ground truth.  Just successively more accurate models.

Sumner uses this bit of philosophy to justify abolishing inflation, not, “…the phenomenon of inflation, but rather the concept of inflation.”  More specifically, price inflation. He explains why this concept is ill-defined and not only unnecessary, but confusing, for understanding the macroeconomy.  He asserts that we should expunge it from our models.  It doesn’t really exist anyway, so if models do better without it, we won’t miss it in the least.

Derek Abbott says Australia alone could solve the world’s current and future energy needs using solar thermal and liquid hydrogen.  Saul Griffith says, practically speaking this is not feasible and we need to use all available clean energy technology and reduce and conserve substantially or we are doomed.  Who is “less wrong”, Derek or Saul?

I just tweeted on a subject that I suspected would cause a stir, and so it has, I’m moving it here:

RafeFurst: I strongly support a soda tax! RT @mobilediner: check it out:  a Soda Tax? http://amplify.com/u/dvl

coelhobruno: @RafeFurst what about diet soda? Would it be exempt?

RafeFurst: @coelhobruno no diet soda would not b exempt from tax.  Tax should be inversely proportional to total nutritional content.  Spinach = no tax

Lauren Baldwin: I do as well … and while they are at it they should tax fake fruit juice too.

Kevin Dick: I think this would be an interesting experiment. I predict a tax does not cause any measurable decrease in BMI.

Kim Scheinberg: New York has had this under consideration for a year.  Perhaps surprisingly, I’m against it. In theory, people will drink less soda. In reality, it will just be another tax on people who can afford it the least.

Leaving aside the “rights” issues and just focusing on effectiveness, I guess we can look towards cigarette taxes and gasoline taxes and see what the lessons are.  What do these forebears suggest?

As an FYI, there is supposedly a new total nutritional score (zero to 100) that is to be mandated on all food in the U.S. by the FDA.  Can anyone corroborate this and its current status?  Presumably this would be the number to base a tax on.

From Monday’s Washington Post:

The District, New York and Los Angeles are on track for fewer killings this year than in any other year in at least four decades. Boston, San Francisco, Minneapolis and other cities are also seeing notable reductions in homicides.

Full article is here, in which more sensible police approaches are given credit for the decline.

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Shadows and Strings

Shadows live in a simple world. They glide effortlessly across any sort of surface, oblivious to the higher dimension of space in which 3-D bodies move, collide and sometimes block the paths of rays of light.

Shadows have no idea how important that third dimension is, and how objects in it endow those very shadows with their quasi-physical existence. Indeed, the laws of shadow physics all depend on the third dimension’s presence. And just as the clueless inhabitants of the shadow world require an extra dimension to explain how they exist and interact, reality for humans may also depend on an invisible dimension or dimensions unknown.

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This is not my meditation, it was created by Cellucidate:

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Heng, et al recently published a review paper that brings together and touches on many different aspects of cancer complexity.  I thought this an opportunity to selectively quote the paper and organize the quotes loosely around various complex systems concepts they relate to.  I’m curious whether this makes sense to readers of this blog, or whether there’s too much unexplained jargon and too many large conceptual leaps.  Please ask questions or make comments freely below.

One preface I think will help is to understand that genome, karyotype and chromosome refer roughly to the same thing.  Here are several schematics that I will present without explanation that together illustrate how genes relate to genome/karyotype/chromosome structure, and how that in turn relates to the so-called genetic network (loosely equivalent to the “proteome”).  Of course “gene” is an outdated and inaccurate concept, so don’t get too hung up looking for genes here, just understand that they are sub-structural elements of the genome.

From MSU website

I’ve been having a serious discussion with two colleagues of mine about closing the gap that exists between two groups:

  1. People of my generation (40 and older) who have capital they want to invest in innovation but only know the VC for-profit-only value model and don’t have any true view into or understanding of social entrepreneurship business models;
  2. People coming out of college today (27 and younger) who are actually creating untold value for the world without taking on investors because they don’t (a) know how to attract them, and (b) have heard too many horror stories

Jay and I fall into category 1 and Michael falls into category 2.  All three of us agree that the gap above exists — due in part to rapidly declining startup costs — and represents a very real (and lucrative) investment opportunity if it can be closed properly. Continue Reading »

Mike Ritchey of mountain bike fame is helping Rwandan coffee farmers cut the transport time (increasing their selling price) from the field to the washing stations by providing them with custom “Coffee Bikes” on a micro loan basis. These bikes replace the wooden bikes (including wheels) that they have been using. You can now own one of only 200 limited edition coffee bikes coming to the U.S. Be uber-cool when you ride down to the local java hole.

The Diamond Rule

We all know the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  TED Prize Wish winner, Karen Armstrong, even laudably proposed that a Charter for Compassion based on the observation that all three Abrahamic traditions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) have the Golden Rule at their core.

I do believe that if we all followed the Golden Rule as the basis for how we treat one another the world would be a better place.  But I also think there is a a more fundamental rule, call it the Diamond Rule, which is even better:

Treat others as you believe they would want you to treat them, if they knew everything that you did.

The difference is subtle, and may not practically speaking yield different action that often.  But when it does, the difference can be significant.

Homo Evolutis

In Juan Enriquez’ TED talk earlier this year, he made the point that humans have entered a new phase of evolution, one that has not been seen on before modern humans and their technology.  This, of course, is one of the main theses of Ray Kurzweil’s book, The Singularity is Near, and the main justification for the creation of The Singularity Institute (plus related Singularity Summit), and now just recently, Singularity University.

Lest you think the concept of Homo Evolutis — a species that can control its own evolutionary path by radically extend healthy human lifespan and ultimately merging with its technology — is a fringe concept share by sci-fi dreamers who don’t have a handle on reality, check out the list of people in charge of Singularity University (link above), the Board members of the Lifeboat Foundation, and throw in Stephen Hawking for good measure, who says, “Humans Have Entered a New Phase of Evolution“.  These people not only have a handle on reality, they have the combined power, resources and influence to shape reality.

For those who are still skeptical of the premise of Homo Evolutis, I present the strongest piece of evidence yet: it’s been featured on The Oprah Show.  QED?

On Tuesday, my Erdos number dropped from infinity to four. That’s right: after four years of grad school, I am now officially published!

The article, “A New Phylogenetic Diversity Measure Generlizing the Shannon Index and Its Application to Phyllostomid Bats,” by Ben Allen, Mark Kon, Yaneer Bar-Yam, can be found on the American Naturalist website or, more accessibly, on my professional site.

So what is it about? Glad you asked!

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Last night, I was lucky enough to get a personal tour of the California Academy of Sciences from Dr. Brian Fisher, a taxonomist specializing in ants.  He’s doing some amazing work trying to help Madagascar prioritize and save the 10% of native rainforest they have left.  It’s reminiscent of Willie Smits‘ work in Borneo, though focused on preservation rather than revitalization.  But it has the same feel of getting the local people committed to managing their own ecological resources.

You can donate here (I gave them $500), but make sure to write “For the Fisher Madagascar Project” in the “Comments” field.  Otherwise, you’ll be paying for the building lights.  Go ahead and leave the “Allocation” field at the default, “Campaign for a New Academy”. Update: Forgot to mention that if you donate $2,000 they’ll name a new species after you or whomever you designate.

It’s hard to do justice to what I saw last night in a blog post, but here goes…

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Specifying a Climate Bet

As I mentioned in the comments on this post, I am currently in the process of negotiating a bet on Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) with another blogger. The challenges are interesting, so I thought I’d give you a peek inside the sausage factory.

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Rafe Furst and I were discussing my predisposition for staying in the cheapest hotel within walking distance of the hotel I actually play poker in despite having the resources to pay for the more expensive properties. The money I save just stays in a fungible heap of other money and isn’t really earmarked for anything. Continue Reading »

Who wants to pay for email? You just might. Many people have suggested that adding a nominal cost to e-mail would serve to fight spam by rendering it largely unprofitable. With Centmail, some Yahoo researchers propose adding a penny postage stamp to each e-mail, representing a penny donation to charity. Since most people already donate to charity, it is not believed that this idea will actually cost anything.

In an effort to make Centmail a reality, a formal protocol and API has already been developed. While I am somewhat worried that a large-scale adoption of the protocol will incentivize significant non-profit and charitable fraud, the economic burden due to spam should be greatly reduced. It’s a cool idea by good people and I urge you to check it out.

Pursuant to my earlier post, it turns out there already is such a group:

Foreclosure Angel Foundation

Thanks to Marissa Chien who found it and pointed me to it.  She also suggests that people who are having trouble with their mortgage should seek advise from HUD.  Information is power and many people (I’ve learned) are irrationally scared of approaching their lender and negotiating.  More and more lenders are willing to cut deals to avoid foreclosures.

Given everything I hear about obesity stats in the U.S. and malnutrition in the developing world, the last thing I was expecting to find in my inbox this morning was a plea to join a Facebook cause to help end hunger in America.  Really?

I’m usually not skeptical in this way, and I’m loath to focus on the negative when it comes to philanthropy, but I can’t get these thoughts out of my head and I’d like some perspective from those who are better informed about the alleged U.S. hunger crisis.  In the mean time, here’s my food for thought:

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Stephen Salter wants to build a fleet of ships that will churn up seawater to create whiter, fluffier clouds that will reflect more sunlight away from the sea surface. The cost for the first 300 ships that should turn the clock back: $600 million.

Other ideas include spraying sulfur dioxide 65,000 feet up through a fleet of Zeppelins and firing 840 billion ceramic frisbees into orbit to block the sun’s rays. But this article also suggests that a rich “Greenfinger” could unilaterally do some Geo-Engineering without world consent and with disasterous consequences.

Cool Solar Power

On a recent trip to the CalExpo site I was impressed to see rows and rows of solar panels supported over the parking lot. Instead of taking up valuable real estate it shades your car and generates 540kW.

Check out this even more interesting way of generating solar power at Cool Earth Solar. It is massively scalable and can compete on price with traditional sources.

Here’s a nice post on how little old Amherst Holdings of Austin, TX got the best of J.P. Morgan Chase, Royal Bank of Scotland, and Bank of America.  Amherst sold them all Credit Default Swaps (CDSs) against mortgages that were already under water.  CDSs pay out if the underlying mortgages default.  Everyone knew these mortgages were in bad trouble.  Sure thing for the big guys, right?  Wrong.

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A new school is opening in New York for grades 6-12 that completely blows my mind. The Quest to Learn school combines games and complex systems in a way that pretty much would have made my life as a teenager. Hell, I wouldn’t mind going back to high school now if I got to go here. I’ll let them describe it:

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What’s fascinating to me about this is not that it works so well and or that there might actually be support in the Obama administration for doing it on a national scale, but rather that there has not been a backlash against it yet.  What are the odds that something like this will actually get implemented?  Is it actually a good thing?

hat tip: Annie Duke’s mom

Thanks to a pointer from Sandeep Baliga over at Cheap Talk, I recently Kindled Matthew Alexander’s How to Break a Terrorist. If this were a novel, it would be in the top 10% of thrillers I’ve read in the last 5 years.  But it’s a true story.

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IIASA

This is just a brief note to let everyone know I’m spending the summer at IIASA, a scientific policy research institute located just outside of Vienna. IIASA focus on systems analysis of global problems such as climate change, land use, demographic changes, public health, ecology, and energy. They don’t seem to use the phrase “complex systems” much, but they’re clearly talking about the same thing.

I happen to be one of 53 lucky graduate students to be selected for this year’s Young Scholars Summer Program, meaning I get to paid to live in Vienna and do research. Can’t really complain about that. Tomorrow I get to hear mini-presentations on everyone’s research proposals, which should be very interesting. My own project will be on the long term, gradual evolution of cooperation in spatially structured populations, using a mathematical framework known as adaptive dynamics.

I’m expecting to learn a lot here, and I’ll share as much as I can with you readers. Looking forward to it!

Everyone seems to have an opinion on the future prospects of Facebook and Twitter. Some of us even feel strongly enough to want to bet on it. Unfortunately, the companies are privately held, and unavailable to be bet on in the traditional way, via the stock market. It is not just household names like Facebook and Twitter that people might want to bet on, but also smaller companies like Weebly, or the Universal Record Database (URDB.)

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This was one of the most important and encouraging talks of this year’s TED conference:

Normally, I don’t debate random bloggers on Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW).  However, I made an exception for Robin Hanson.  For those who don’t already know of him, he was both an early proponent of decision markets and has a reasonably well known journal article on why two Bayesian rationalists can’t agree to disagree. I’m a fan of his work and have been reading his blog for years.

Yesterday, he put up a post titled CO2 Warming Looks Real.  He’s not an expert. Like me, he has an economics background and did some detailed research.  Yet from the title and body of the post, I though he must have reached a very different conclusion than I did. So I thought I’d try to engage him to find out where we differ. The results were interesting.

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Everyone has heard about the Large Hadron Collider, arguably the most ambitious and complex engineering project ever undertaken, anywhere.  The purpose, no less ambitious, is to answer all sorts of burning questions about the nature of the universe, including whether the Standard Model of particle physics is valid.  Given such ambition and high stakes, it would surprise most people that the LHC is managed in a collaborative manner with very little hierarchy.  Essentially it’s a giant, crowdsourced science experiment.

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Short but brilliant TED talk by Joachim de Posada.  I love the economic point he makes at the end.

As an occasional reader of science blogs, I can’t help but notice the extraordinary amount of time and space devoted to the debunking of Creationist and Intelligent Design “science.” Certainly there are good reasons for this: the poor reasoning and scant evidence behind such pseudoscience makes it an easy target, and the surprising momentum of the Creationist political agenda represents a genuine threat to American science education.

Still, I can’t help but feel that the focus on Creationism’s pseudoscientific claims have obscured what is really a debate about beliefs and values, not science. Moreover, the discourse on blogs often reflects a view that religion (of all forms) is inherently opposed to evolution, and that no intelligent person could possibly believe in both.

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Have you ever heard of anyone selflessly helping out a stranger by buying their house at a bank foreclosure auction and just giving it back to them?  Well, now you have.

More likely, you’ve probably heard of private investors taking advantage of the banks’ unwillingness (or inability) to deal with all the bad loans on their books. Like the group of investors in Act 2 of this This American Life episode, you buy a house that’s in foreclosure for a significant discount on its true market value and then “you get the homeowner into either a mortgage they can afford, or they’re able to rent it, or you pay them a bit to move somewhere else.”

Well, what if there was a way to combine these two activities so that you are doing good for someone else while doing well for yourself financially?  There are many variants of how this could work, but here’s the basic concept:

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Here The 2009 map evokes nuclear strike graphics from 80’s films! Very clear that it is easier to destroy an economy than build one.

A number of people responded to my recent post on the California budget. So I thought I’d dig a little deeper into the issue. The three points I’d like to address at the moment are whether spending as a percentage of income is rising, where the extra spending is going, and whether the extra spending is beneficial.

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Foldit

Has anyone played Foldit, the protein-folding game that is designed to advance the science?  This Wired article makes it sound like Ender’s Game meets biochemistry!  Sounds like the Poehlman kid is the protein-folding equivalent of Stephen Wiltshire.  I love the crowdsourcing, the meta-evolutionary algorithm of it (to find the savants), and the implications for science.

Yesterday’s puzzler was to guess the species being talked about here:

One became super efficient at gobbling up its food, doing so at a rate that was about a hundred times faster than the other. The other was slower at acquiring food, but produced about three times more progeny per generation.

The answer is…

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1. Smile.

2. Spend time with friends, or even try and make a new one.

3. Help another person. Donate a small amount of money, that has nominal value to you, but significant value to someone else. (Kiva, Vittana Foundation.)

4. Quit Smoking. It might be even worse for you today.

5. Stop worrying about tomorrow.

Guess What Species?

Without doing a text search (that would be cheating), guess what species is being referred to in this quote about the evolution of competing strategies:

One became super efficient at gobbling up its food, doing so at a rate that was about a hundred times faster than the other. The other was slower at acquiring food, but produced about three times more progeny per generation.

Answer in tomorrow’s post.

A few short months ago, Hillary Clinton declared an end to the “war on terror.” Now, it appears as though the “war on drugs” is ending as well, or is it?

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First, let me apologize for the posting lull.  I’ve been busy with work and also struggling with a sinus issue that has sapped my discretionary intellectual energy.  But enough about me.

In honor of California’s special election on budget measures, I thought I’d shed a little light on the fundamental problem.  Contrary to what polticians are saying, the cause of the budget problem is not falling revenues in a recession. Rather, the cause is a dramatic increase in spending over the last 10 years.

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If, like Aubrey de Grey, you believe that immortality is achievable, or you are just intrigued by the possibility, you should check out this news story on The Methuselah Foundation.

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As part of President Barack Obama’s stimulus package, NIH is awarding $200 million in “Challenge Grants.” But, according to Science Magazine, these grants are far more competitive than initially intended:

A frantic grant-writing effort that has consumed biomedical research scientists this spring came to an end last week, resulting in a huge pile of new applications—more than 10 times larger than expected—to be reviewed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). After this enthusiastic response, there will be many disappointed applicants: The rejection rate could run as high as 97%.

Increased time cost spent not just applying for money but also reviewing applications to allocate the funds. Additionally, many qualified researchers chose not to apply for funding after hearing how competitive the grants were. Is this a good thing? Does this competition result in better science? Could there be a better way to allocate scientific funding?

From time to time we hear about people with “photographic” memories who supposedly can remember every detail of something they experienced.  When you look into what’s really going on though, it becomes clear that this is not really the case, and their capabilities are actually limited to certain segments of their experience.

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The Freakonomics guys have been on this rant for years, and until recently, I agreed with their logic.  But the mounting evidence (in my mind) is starting to swing the other way.

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Tweeter, Claus Metzner (@cmetzner) alerted me to this cool area of study with this paper.

Suppose you meet a Wise being (W) who tells you it has put $1,000 in box A, and either $1 million or nothing in box B. This being tells you to either take the contents of box B only, or to take the contents of both A and B. Suppose further that the being had put the $1 million in box B only if a prediction algorithm designed by the being had said that you would take only B. If the algorithm had predicted you would take both boxes, then the being put nothing in box B.  Presume that due to determinism, there exists a perfectly accurate prediction algorithm. Assuming W uses that algorithm, what choice should you make?

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Yesterday, the attorney for my new company advised me that I should be careful about what I disclose to the public about the company’s activities.  The company operates in a highly regulated field.  Evidently, any open discussion of what the company does, especially of any offerings it may or may not hypothetically be considering, could be construed as a solicitation.

From an economics point of view, I think that such restrictions, however well meaning their original intent, tend to merely protect incumbents from competition.  Nevertheless, I obviously don’t want the company to get into any trouble.  Therefore, I have edited or redacted any potentially problematic revelations from these posts

If you have any questions, post a comment here and I will contact you privately.

I have been having a 140 character discussion with Ciarán Brewster (@macbruski) via twitter.  And while it’s kind of interesting to force complex subject matter into very few characters, it is limiting the discussion, so I will summarize it so far here and hopefully others can weigh in too.

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Nature Minus Humans?

From the “nothing is quite so simple” department, a Boston Globe article this week points out a hidden legacy of the conservation movement: The expulsion of native peoples from their land.

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Portugal decriminalized all drugs in 2001 (yes that includes cocaine and heroin). And “ none of the nightmare scenarios touted by preenactment decriminalization opponents—from rampant increases in drug usage among the young to the transformation of Lisbon into a haven for “drug tourists”—has occurred.”

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In “Game Theory: Can a Round of Poker Solve Afghanistan’s Problems?” Major Richard J.H. Gash creates a simple two player game to show how game theory can be used to influence military planning. Gash’s game involves two villages in Afghanistan with the choice to either support the “Coalition” or support the “Taliban.” The scoring of the game generates a payoff matrix that is similar to that of the Prisoner’s Dilemma with a non Pareto-optimal Nash equilibrium. Unfortunately, Gash oversimplifies the game to just one round. In reality, Afghan villages participate in multiple rounds of decision making, with the actual number of rounds unknown, leading to differing strategies and outcomes than those proposed by Gash.

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In order for you to believe we should do something about anthropogenic global warming (AGW) such as impose a carbon tax, you really need to believe all of these things:

  1. CO2 causes a direct temperature increase
  2. Positive feedbacks amplify the direct temperature increase several fold
  3. The effects on humans of the total temperature increase are significantly bad
  4. The cost of reducing CO2 emissions is less than the bad effects we can avoid

Nearly all scientifically literate skeptics agree with (1). Most typically argue against points (2) and (4). Indur M. Golakny has a nice series of posts over at Watts Up With That that looks at (3).

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With flu the incubation period ranges from 24 hours to four days, meaning people often are infectious before they have symptoms. Unless already feeling ill, the majority of people assume they haven’t been infected and behave accordingly. Perhaps, instead, they should act as though they are infected until proven wrong. If a person knows they are infected they will certainly not shake hands or kiss. They will wear a mask (masks are more effective in preventing transmission than in preventing reception of the virus) when they need to go into public areas. They will be more fastidious with this mindset than by assuming they are not sick. (It is not suggested that people stay home from work as that cure might be more harmful than the disease.) This interruption behavior could drastically reduce the transmission rates.

Changing the mindset could change the outcome.

Dendreon has developed two interesting avenues in the fight against prostate cancer. The first is a therapeutic vaccine that in just released Phase 3 study results increased survival time by 4 months. The second is a small molecule that induces apoptosis in prostate cancer cells.

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Despite hundreds of billions of dollars appropriated for cancer research, as well as the efforts of thousands of the world’s best minds, progress in preventing or curing cancer has been almost non-existent. I find this unacceptable. We should be doing better. We need to be doing better. So what’s the problem? and more importantly, how can we fix it?

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[EDITED 05/08/2009: see here] The majority of people I’ve talked to like the idea of revolutionizing angel funding. Among the skeptical minority, there are several common objections. Perhaps the weakest is that individual angels can pick winners at the seed stage.

Now, those who make this objection usually don’t state it that bluntly. They might say that investors need technical expertise to evaluate the feasibility of a technology, or industry expertise to evaluate the likelihood of demand materializing, or business expertise to evaluate the evaluate the plausibility of the revenue model. But whatever the detailed form of the assertion, it is predicated upon angels possessing specialized knowledge that allows them to reliably predict the future success of seed-stage companies in which they invest.

It should be no surprise to readers that I find this assertion hard to defend. Given the difficulty in principle of predicting the future state of a complex system given its initial state, one should produce very strong evidence to make such a claim and I haven’t seen any from proponents of angels’ abilities. Moreover, the general evidence of human’s ability to predict these sorts of outcomes makes it unlikely for a person to have a significant degree of forecasting skill in this area.

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A friend pointed me to a doubly prescient talk given by George Soros in 1994 about his theory of reflexivity in the markets.  Essentially Soros notes that there’s feedback in terms of what agents believe about the market and how the market behaves.  Not groundbreaking, but he takes this thinking to some logical conclusions which are in contrast to standard economic theory:

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Ray Kurzweil’s prediction of the melding of the computational speed of computers with the awesome software of the human brain is one step closer. The Blue Brain Project is an attempt to reverse engineer the brain with the goal of “creating a physiological simulation for biomedical applications.”

At the European Future Technologies meeting in Prague they announced a “detailed simulation of a small region of a brain built molecule by molecule has been constructed and has recreated experimental results from real brains.”

I’m giving my “2009 Q1 award for most concise, lucid comment” to Paul Phillips for this gem:

Viewed from a thousand miles, the financial system has a incalculably large incentive to fail catastrophically as frequently as it can do so without killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

As long as there is such a thing as “too big to fail” and trillions of dollars are available for siphoning, according to what logic can this cycle be dampened? Nobody has to explicitly pursue this outcome (although there are many who will) for it to be inevitable; the system obeys its own logic above all else.

[ commenting on Alfred Hubler on Stabilizing CAS ]

One problem facing financial institutions is not knowing what the Mortgage Backed Securities they hold are worth. One problem facing homeowners is that the abandoned and unmaintained house beside them is dragging down the value of their property. An anecdotal story from Modesto, Ca has two neighbors getting together, purchasing the abandoned house and renting it out. One less eyesore on their block, one less eyesore mortgage on some bank’s books.

What if all financial institutions accepting federal aid were forced to list on E-Bay, sorted by zip code, every house on their books that is abandoned or in foreclosure? Continue Reading »

Many users, and friends of users of marijuana report experiencing a “contact high.” That is, they purport to experience some of the effects of marijuana simply by being in contact with or around those using marijuana. Virtually all users wrongly attribute this experience to the inhalation of second hand smoke. This is unlikely for a number of reasons. Since exhaled smoke is virtually devoid of psychoactive substances and is widely dispersed in the surrounding air, it is not possible for one to inhale even a small fraction of a working dose. Additionally, many, including noted pharmacologist and psychedelic researcher Alexander Shulgin, report similar experiences involving drugs that are not inhaled, indicating that these effects are due to different biological processes.

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A few articles on the economy that were sent my way recently.

The Good: After Capitalism (Geoff Mulgan)

The era of transition that we are entering will be disruptive—but it may bring a world where markets are servants, not masters.”  I urge you to read this entire article, and leave your ideological biases at the door.  Despite the title, this is no polemic.  Here’s the punchline:

Contemporary biology and social science has confirmed just how much we are social animals—dependent on others for our happiness, our self-respect, our worth and even our life. There is no inherent contradiction between capitalism and community. But we have learned that these connections are not automatic: they have to be cultivated and rewarded, and societies that invest large proportions of their surpluses on advertising to persuade people that individual consumption is the best route to happiness end up paying a high price.

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Daniel and Ace just joined Emergent Fool as primary authors.  You may recognize them from their frequent and insightful comments and hat tips.

With his permission, I am posting an email thread between myself and Alfred Hubler.  I had contacted him on the recommendation of John Miller when Kevin and I were posting on the possibility of dampening boom-bust cycles in the financial markets through policy or other mechanisms.  Here’s what Hubler had to say:

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Physics.Cancer.GOV

Yesterday, from the Director of the National Cancer Institute, addressing one of the two largest cancer research conferences of the year:

NCI commenced a series of workshops that began to bring aspects of the physical sciences to the problem of cancer. We discussed how physical laws governing short-range and other forces, energy flows, gradients, mechanics, and thermodynamics affect cancer, and how the theories of Darwinian and somatic evolution can better help us understand and control cancer.

Read more on my Cancer Complexity Forum post.

In part 1 I advocated photographing your completed ballot before submitting it and posting your photograph online.  Turns out that if you followed this piece of advice in Missouri, you might be in jail right now.  Oops!  Sorry :-)

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[EDITED 05/08/2009: see here] We are finally ready to go semi-public with our revolutionary new angel funding concept!  For the last year, Dave Lambert (the Tiltboy also known as Diceboy) and I have been working on an alternative mechanism for delivering seed funding to technology companies. [REDACTED 05/08/2009: see here].

Here’s the summary.  The market for seed capital is clearly broken. Most individual angels will only do about 1 deal per year, which means their portfolios lose money 40% of the time due to insufficient diversification. Even premier angel groups like the Band of Angels say they only do about 8 deals per year. Our math says you need to do 125 to achieve good diversification. On the other side of the table, only 14% of entrepreneurs who want angel funding will find it.  Those that do will spend about 6 months looking for money instead of building their businesses.

This is a sorry state of affairs for a market where the overall annual return is 25%+. Here’s a straightforward application of portfolio theory that can fix it.  Have a large enough pool of money so one entity can do 125-200 deals per year. Then use an online screening process to give founders a yes or no in two weeks. Obviously, there are a ton of details beyond this, but those are what we’ve spent the last year figuring out.  If you’re curious, let me know in a comment here and I will contact you privately.[Links to files REDACTED 05/08/2009: see here].

First, let me say how honored I am to be contributing to this blog and to the complex systems web community in general.

A New York Times Magazine article raises an issue I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.

If you are, as I am, a scientist concerned about global climate change, you may find yourself asking, “What kind of research could I be doing to best contribute to a solution?”

According to some, it may not be to study the climate itself. We may not know enough to predict exactly what will happen when, but we do know that drastic changes are coming whose magnitude will be determined by the actions we take now. It may not even be to study technologies such as alternative energy or policies such as cap-and-trade that can help combat global warming. Because while these policies and technologies are surely necessary, global warming is a problem created by human behavior, and our behavior will need to change if we are to make the individual and group decisions necessary to mitigate it, including the implementation of these policies and technologies. It may therefore be that the most important scientific questions in the fight against global warming are questions about humans, human behavior, and what we can do to change it.

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Welcome, Ben Allen

Ben Allen runs the Plektix blog and we’re trying an experiment to see if we can move towards a critical mass of like-minded complexity bloggers.  To that end, Ben will be cross-posting his blog entries from Plektix for a while to this blog.  If it works out to everyone’s satisfaction we may merge the blogs into one.

Any existing complexity bloggers out there who would like to engage in the same experiment, please let us know.

Cold Fusion

I remember reading this Wired article in 1998 suggesting that the “debunking” of cold fusion may have been way premature.  Last night, 60 Minutes did a pretty convincing piece claiming that more than 20 labs around the world have reported “excess heat” from cold fusion experiments:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Click here for the full story.

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The Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards will rise from 27.5 mpg to 35 mpg from now until 2020. That should decrease any pollutant associated with burning fossils fuels.  All good, right?  Wrong.

There is a trade off in safety.  You are much more likely to die in a small car. The WSJ Online reports on a recent Insurance Insititute for Highway Safety (IIHS) study that shows  small cars like the Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris fair very poorly in two-car frontal offset crash tests against the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. This is against mid-sized cars from the same manufacturer, so a reasonable comparison.

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When I was 16, I dislocated my elbow.  The ensuing re-injuries and calcification of the ligaments ended my competitive wrestling career.  Last year, I separated my shoulder and while it’s pretty well healed, it’s going to have some annoying weaknesses the rest of my life.

I’m not the only one.  Most of the people I know who have been reasonably active through age 40 have some sort of permanent impairment from a ligament, cartilage, or tendon injury.  Today, I was wondering if extracellular matrix (ECM) might be the answer.

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I’ve been taking quercetin for a few months now and thought I’d report on my experience. As you can see from the Wikipedia link, quercetin is believed to have anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor properties.  This is not why I’m taking it.

Rather, I had a record number of colds this season.  4 major ones from Thanksgiving to mid-Feb.  I have been training unusually hard for the last year and an increased incidence of upper respiratory infections (URIs) is a known problem for endurance athletes. A little research turned up this article where quercetin reduced the incidence of URIs in marathoners.

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Kevin started an interesting discussion that included a thoughtful proposal for the problem of major medical care costs risk mitigation.  You should read that here before reading my proposal below.

Part 1: Major Medical Annuities. Federally mandated/funded (similar to SSI/Medicare), with a specific initial lifetime value that is the same for everyone. The concept is that you pick a number slightly bigger than the average expected lifetime major medical bill and set aside that pot of money for everyone individually. At some point (e.g. 65) you can choose to start drawing down from your pot as taxable income. Prior to then, the only way the fund can be used is for major medical expenses not covered by other insurance you may have. Such payments go directly to providers and are tax-exempt. When you die, any leftover amount gets transferred to the MMA accounts of your heirs (per your desired breakdown, or according to probate law in the absence of a will).

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This is a precursor to Singularity sort of argument:

Dan Ariely had an interesting idea on NPR’s Marketplace today.  Here’s the audio of the segment.  The idea is to get tax payers thinking about how their tax dollars should be spent, thus getting them more civilly engaged.  His research and that of others suggests that such activity would reduce the propensity to cheat on one’s taxes, and may even get people to pay more than they would otherwise.

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I have no desire to be in charge. I’d have to suffer too many fools and forego too much sleep. But I take comfort from knowing that, if I were in charge, I could confidently propose solutions to many of the common problems politicians hem and haw about.  It’s not just that I’m smarter and better trained than most of them, I simply wouldn’t care about getting re-elected.  So the obvious solutions that piss people off would be fine with me.

Unfortunately, health care is not one of these problems.  The solution really isn’t obvious. So I’ve been thinking about it lately.  I’ve got some preliminary ideas that I’d like to share. But be nice. I’m not saying these are the answers. They are just the best out-of-the-box thinking I’ve been able to come up with so far.

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Is the Party Over?

I don’t like the Republican or Libertarian parties. But I’m also no fan of the Democratic party. In fact, I dislike all political parties and think they should be done away with.  And while I’m not naive enough to think that this will happen, it makes me glad to see that the “post partisan” utopia is closer today than it was a year ago.

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As I’ve made clear before, I remain skeptical that carbon emissions pose a significant marginal threat of climate change. The likely climate sensitivity to CO2 is substantially less than the natural variability over human timescales.  Seeing as how temperature trends over geologic time scales are currently downward, I don’t think it’s worth wasting much effort on CO2 reductions.

However, let’s assume for a moment that I’m wrong.  What should we do? I don’t think we can actually decrease our energy usage very much and support our civilization. So we have to find non-petroleum energy sources.  Biofuel technology doesn’t look very good at the moment.  Scaling will require major land use changes that I contend are probably a net negative environmental impact. The cost-benefit for solar does look better, especially in certain geographic areas. But it seems to me the only massively scalable solution at our current level of technology is nuclear fission.

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Microcosmos

There’s a cool little coffee table book called Microcosmos that features super magnified images of (mostly) living creatures.  Here’s a sample:

Macrophage (yellow) chomping on e. coli (red) [3000x magnification]

micro2

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It’s not hard these days to find vignettes like this one (starting at minute 1:45) that describe a microeconomic chain of events that give you a glimpse into the recessionary dynamic.  I think it’s a good starting point to explain my personal theory of why asymmetry is the root of all value (economic and otherwise).

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The import of this talk goes way beyond the specific and stunning work that Bassler and her team have done on quorum sensing.  In my mind, this is the prototype for good biological science:

I happened to come across two interesting posts with Singularity implications that I thought you might be interested in.  First, the Singularity Hub reports that Osiris has a promising phase II trial underway for a treatment that uses foreign stem cells to repair the muscle damage from heart attacks.  If you’re about 40 like Rafe and I, this means your chances of dying from heart disease could go way down.  Now if we can just make some progress on cancer, we’ll be centenarians.

Second, via Prometheus, Wired reports on a robot-software combination that was able to generate, test, and refine it’s own hypotheses to identify coding for orphan enzymes in yeast. Obviously, this is a very special purpose kind of science.  But the fact they got a closed loop is very impressive.  I also like the fact that it’s in the biological sciences. Hey, maybe some descendant of this program can solve the aformentioned cancer problem.

Steven Gjerstad and Vernon Smith have published a really nice article that starts out with bubbles in general and goes on to explain why the bursting of this particular bubble hurt the economy so much.  It echoes a lot of themes that I’ve covered before, but is obviously much more soundly though out.

The short version is that the effect of a bubble on the economy is determined by its effect on consumer spending.  The Dot Com Bubble didn’t have much of an effect because it primarily affected institutions and already relatively wealthy consumers. However, the Fed’s attempt to shorten the resulting recession created a loose monetary policy which forced dollars into the most attractive asset class: homes.  This attractiveness stemmed from relaxed lending standards and tax-free capital gains on homes, which created more buyers. But asset appreciation in this class is fundamentally limited by the ability of consumers to repay loans from income, which was not growing fast enough. As the institutions insuring mortgages reached their limits, they slowed the issuing of policies, which dried up the market for new mortgages, which dried up the ability of people to buy, which decreased prices, which sent home equity under water, which further decreased the flow of insurance policies.

Because home equity and home ownership help drive consumer spending, this burst bubble then affected the real economy.  Cool.  Fortuitously, Vernon Smith’s Rationality in Economics is the next book in my pile.

I asked this question on twitter/facebook and got a lot of variants of “I agree” and only one person who stated disagreement (but provided inadequate reason, IMO).  Jay Greenspan put it this way:

Interesting question this morning, and something I’ve been wondering about. I’ve yet to see anyone really argue that state of non-regulation we’ve been in for the last years has been a good idea.  I’ve heard some thoughtful conservatives talk about how their views have changed radically — coming to understand that forceful regulation is absolutely necessary.

The super-conservatives I’ve seen are talking more about taxes, avoiding the subject. I’d be very interested to see a credible argument for a hands-off approach.

So how about it, anyone game to take up a considered argument for not mandating that companies who get big enough to affect the global economy should be broken up or otherwise handicapped?

The main problem with executive pay is not that they are compensated too highly, but that there’s not enough pain for them personally when they do a bad job.  I propose that the top three executives in all public companies be required to invest 100% of their salary in their own stock each year, with a decaying lockup period before they can sell.

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1) The Quiet Coup

The crash has laid bare many unpleasant truths about the United States. One of the most alarming, says a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is that the finance industry has effectively captured our government—a state of affairs that more typically describes emerging markets, and is at the center of many emerging-market crises. If the IMF’s staff could speak freely about the U.S., it would tell us what it tells all countries in this situation: recovery will fail unless we break the financial oligarchy that is blocking essential reform. And if we are to prevent a true depression, we’re running out of time.

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Rafe, you are not the last person on Facebook to do 25 Random Things.  After your post, Jane browbeat me into finally putting my list together.

1) I can force my eyes into a disconjugate gaze–looking in slightly different directions.

2) My wife can also force her eyes into a disconjugate gaze.  This gives a whole new meaning to, “Love at first sight.” Our daughter inherited this superpower (among others).

3) I have large hands but can nevertheless fit my entire fist in my mouth. In fact, I held a record at my oral surgeon for largest mouth opening.

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25 Random Things

1) I might be the last person on Facebook to do 25 Random Things, but I promised some people I would, and I take my promises seriously.

2) The more I learn, the less I feel that I know. But I am okay with that. Still it’s unsettling because I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning.

3) I care more about what people think of themselves than what they think of me.
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Via my buddy Matt Watson, here is a really well done infographic explaining the credit crisis.  Merely entertaining for regular readers who’ve been following the crisis.  But quite informative for any of your friends who haven’t felt the need to wade through all the commentary.

On Saturday I attended a fundraiser poker tournament for non-profit organization called DEF (Decision Education Foundation).  As it’s name implies, they are dedicated to helping individuals become better decision makers via the education system.  Their strategy is multifaceted, but their core goal at the moment is to introduce decision making explicitly into the curricula of primary and secondary schools around the country.  To do this, they first educate the educators on the components and process of making good decisions.
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For those of who understand the power of self-fulfilling prophecy, there’s some good news on the foreign policy front.  The Obama administration (thanks to Hillary Clinton) will not be using the phrase “war on terror” anymore, as it is widely deemed to be “overly militaristic and perhaps counterproductive.”  Amen!

hat tip: Daniel Horowitz

Betting on Recovery

I have a bet with a friend that Dow will exceed 14,000 at least once by October 12, 2012 (he says it won’t).

Click here to make your prediction on what year that will take place.

Comment below on why you think what you think.

One of things I object to about mainstream environmentalists is that they act as if there are no tradeoffs.  For example, they simultaneously promote organic farming, argue for biodiversity , and lobby for more open space. Personally, I think the second and third are very important.  In my value system, they are are very close to terminal goals. Which is why I avoid organic foods.

Reason has a short interview with Norman Borlaug that nicely sums up the tradeoffs required by organic farming.  There is literally nobody who understands modern agriculture better. The bottom line is that if the US tried to produce today’s agriculture output with 1960s era technology, we would need on the order of 1 million square miles of additional farmland (assuming that the marginal productivity of the land decreases somewhat as you bring less productive ares into play).  That’s a swath 1000 miles by 1000 miles.  That’s about 1/3 the land area of the contiguous 48 states.

Replicate this calculation all over the world and you’d have massive deforestation and habitat destruction.  Remember the unintended slashing and burning rainforests to plant oil palms for subsidized biodiesel?  Now multiply that by 10.  No thanks.

One of my favorite talks of all time is Ken Robinson’s on how children are born naturally innovative and the process of schooling and growing up in our society beats it out of them by the time they are adults.  More recently, Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat Pray Love fame) opened some eyes with this talk on how we think of individual creativity and where it comes from.

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This is not news, health professionals of all sorts have been saying this for a long time.  ABC News features a recent study supporting this.

A relevant footnote near the end of the article though:

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Tribes

Tribes are hot.

Kevin has referred more than once to the famous Dunbar number for limits on optimal human tribe size.

One of my favorite books recently is Seth Godin’s book on leadership, called — you guessed it — Tribes.

Yesterday I heard a great talk by David Logan, co-author of Tribal Leadership.

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In the comments on this post, Rafe and I started a dialog on how well microeconomics will hold up as the world becomes more extreme.  We got a little off track and privately decided it was worthwhile taking the discussion up a level. So we are trying a little experiment.  We’re going to jointly write a Q&A post over time, bumping it to the top once one of us adds something.  The current state, which we shall try to reset as we update is:

Q.2: Microeconomics holds that people do more than simply respond to incentives.  Most animals do.  But people maintain sets of “likes” and “dislikes”. They form “plans” for increasing the amount of “likes” and decreasing the amount of “dislikes” they experience. Part of these “plans” includes engaging in “transactions” with other people (or groups of people) whereby an exchange instrumentally furthers a plan or terminally completes a plan.  So does a more extreme world change this?

The history is below the fold.

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Willie Smits Is a Genius

Rafe posted this TED talk by Willie Smits without much commentary. I would like to add some.  When I first started watching, I thought, “Wow, you can make a lot of hay out of simply applying Econ 101.”  This was in response to the fact that they bought the former rainforest land in question, making it private property.  This is one of the classic solutions to a Tragedy of the Commons problem.  But then my appreciation made an exponential run upward.

Somehow, he managed to perfectly balance the economic and ecological package into a rapidly growing and self-sustaining system.  You see, he had to figure out how much economic benefit the land could generate at each point in time and never have more than the corresponding number of people working the land.  He had to figure out how to mesh psychological factors with incentive structures to get the locals to adopt the land both socially and economically. He also had to plot the path for an ecosystem in time and space.

Each of these three prongs represents an effort to control a dynamic system and he had to mesh all of them at once.  He makes it sound obvious in retrospect, but make no mistake, this is a feat of sheer brilliance.  I think there are some good general lessons to learn from this, but the real ongoing value is in the human capital he has built for managing this process.  He should cycle through groups of apprentices that then go forth and attempt to replicate this miracle.  I really hope this lasts and expands in the long term.

Good Karma?

So I just put down a (refundable) deposit on a Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid car.

What do you think of this decision?

If you liked this talk (as I do), check out Ariely’s 3 irrational lessons from the Bernie Madoff scandal.

Oh, and re-grow the rainforrest, strengthen the social, political and economic climate, save endangered species and increase biodiversity and resilliance all at the same time without any budget.

I had a thought today when I was reading Arnold Kling’s post on always trying to fight the last war with financial regulations.  We seem to reliably have financial crises.  They don’t follow a schedule, but they do happen somewhat frequently.  What if the financial system is gripped by the same pehonomenon of synchronized chaos that I described in this post? A brief survey of Google and Google Scholar doesn’t turn up much.  Anybody know of work in this area?  In other words, “Is there a mathematical economist in the house?”

Just read an interesting essay* which changed my thinking about the role of sleep.  While nobody can claim to understand exactly why sleep is necessary for mammals, most of the explanations focus on some positive, regenerative benefits that we can’t do without (e.g. maintaining the neuronal circuitry).  Martin Kinsbourne puts forth another benefit, which I’d never thought of: Continue Reading »

As I mentioned in this post, one of the three primary planks of my worldview is that, “…the human brain is a woefully inadequate decision making substrate.” I started adopting this posture in graduate school and have refined it with constant input from the cognitive psychology and neurobiology literature over the years.  Luckily, you don’t have to put in that kind of time. Simply go out and read Rational Choice in an Uncertain Worlds by Hastie and Dawes and The Accidental Mind by Linden.

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Via a post at the always terrific Watts Up with That, a pre publication version of this paper examines the non-linear coupling dynamics of the climate. Its hypothesis is based on the mathematics of synchronized chaos (sorry, no good introductory link available).

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Scott Sumner has a great post at his blog TheMoneyIllusion (highly recommended in general if you’re into monetary economics).  In it, he explores the difference between values and worldview.  In particular, he explains how academic economists tend to have liberal values but an economic, rather than liberal or conservative, worldview.  This leads to interesting effects when you try to measure academic economists on the left-right spectrum.

What I loved was the list of seven differences between the “common sense” and “economic” worldviews.  They are concrete examples of how economists differ in their causal reasoning from even very highly intelligent and educated non-economists.  If you want to understand where I’m coming from, read the post.  It’s pretty much one of the three primary planks of my own worldview.  [In case your curious, the other two are that (2) the human brain is a woefully inadequate decision making substrate and (3) many of the outcomes we care about are produced by complex dynamic systems that are very difficult to characterize]

This is one of the most important medical “breakthroughs” in recent memory.  You should read the entire article, because it makes some subtle points, but the upshot is that placebo has (at least) two components, one that is triggered by conscious belief in a putative cure, and another that is triggered by unconscious, Pavlovian association.

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Radical Transparency

In a March 2009 Wired article, Daniel Roth calls for radical transparency in financial reporting as the path to recovery and a more secure financial system.  He argues that the reporting requirements today allow companies to obscure what’s going on and that the way to fix things is as follows.   Embrace a markup language with which bite-sized chunks of standardly defined pieces of financial data are thrown out to the world so that users can crowdsource the true picture of a company’s financial health.

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TED Talk: Linked Data

One of my favorite talks of TED 2009 was from Tim Berners-Lee, the man often credited with (actually) inventing the Web.  He’s been going on for quite a while about the coming of the “semantic web” and how it will be even bigger than the current web in terms of impact.  But until his TED talk on linked data, I didn’t really get it.  Now I do.  And I think he’s right:

As you’ve probably figured out by now, I prefer to base decisions on statistically significant evidence.  However, in order to gather such evidence, you must have hypotheses in the form of testable models.  If the models you try to test are divorced from reality on the ground, your results will be useless no matter how statistically significant.

Therefore, if you’re interested in issues of poverty and race in the US, here are two ethnographies you should read.  Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh and Cop in the Hood by Peter Moskos.  As sociology PhD candidates, both went out and actually became actors in poor black neighborhoods.  Venkatesh hung out with a crack gang in a Chicago housing project and Moskos became a police officer in Baltimore’s roughest neighborhood.

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On the Cancer Complexity forum, I pose a question: if we could somehow replace all the damaged DNA in each of the cells of your body with an undamaged copy on a continuous basis, would that prevent you from getting cancer?

What do you think?

Apropos of Rafe’s last post on Complexity Economics, I ran across an economic stability proposal that is either brilliant or crazy. I both haven’t thought it over enough and am probably not qualified to determine which.

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Complexity Economics

In Chasing the Dragon, I wondered aloud whether we could dampen boom-bust cycles in the financial system with an economic equivalent of a controlled burn.  Kevin suggested that “generic countercyclical policies” might work.  Underlying both mine and Kevin’s thinking is the idea that you can possibly do better (for the world as a whole) by (a) understanding the entire economic system better and (b) enacting policies which are in line with that understanding.  In contrast to these assumptions are a point of view articulated by one of the readers on a different thread:

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Crohn’s Disease

Debbie Maier asks us on the Upcoming Topics page to address Crohn’s Disease.

I don’t know too much about it except that it’s an autoimmune disease and has a complex, multi-causal etiology and pathology.  In my reading on autoimmune diseases in general there seems to be a direct link between latitude an incidence.   Specifically, the farther from the equator you live the more likely you are to get Crohn’s, Type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and so on.

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George Lakoff wrote an interesting piece on FiveThirtyEight.com yesterday called The Obama Code.  I will focus on one of the sections in particular because it articulates something I’ve suspected for a while, but I’ve never heard anyone else give credence to the notion.  Which is that one of the fundamental differences between liberals and conservatives in the U.S. is that conservatives give more weight to individual, autonomous actors and actions in their view of how the world works, and liberals tend to give more weight to systemic causation and interdependency:

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Chasing the Dragon

Kevin just posted about a great article by Felix Salmon in Wired.  I underlined three quotes in my reading of it:

  1. “Correlation trading has spread through the psyche of the financial markets like a highly infectious thought virus.” (Tavakoli)
  2. “…the real danger was created not because any given trader adopted it but because every trader did. In financial markets, everybody doing the same thing is the classic recipe for a bubble and inevitable bust.” (Salmon)
  3. “Co-association between securities is not measurable using correlation…. Anything that relies on correlation is charlatanism.” (Taleb)

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Twitter vs. Psychoanalysis

In this Times Online article, two psychologists and an author weigh in with their view of Twitter users as narcissistic and infantile:

The clinical psychologist Oliver James has his reservations. “Twittering stems from a lack of identity. It’s a constant update of who you are, what you are, where you are. Nobody would Twitter if they had a strong sense of identity.”

“We are the most narcissistic age ever,” agrees Dr David Lewis, a cognitive neuropsychologist and director of research based at the University of Sussex. “Using Twitter suggests a level of insecurity whereby, unless people recognise you, you cease to exist. It may stave off insecurity in the short term, but it won’t cure it.”

For Alain de Botton, author of Status Anxiety and the forthcoming The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Twitter represents “a way of making sure you are permanently connected to somebody and somebody is permanently connected to you, proving that you are alive. It’s like when a parent goes into a child’s room to check the child is still breathing. It is a giant baby monitor.”

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Via Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution, an excellent article in Wired about how one formula, embodying one assumption, catalyzed the meltdown.  I recommend you read it and ponder it.  There are many useful lessons for modeling complex systems in general.

However, I will summarize for those of you short on time.  A fundamental problem in securitization is figuring out how different components of a security are related.  Think of it as measuring how well the components are diversified.  The more independent the components, the less risk embodied in the security.  Thus AAA rated tranches of mortgage-backed securities are supposed to be very safe because the components are supposed to be highly independent.

A Chinese mathematician named David X. Li had an insight.  You don’t have to analyze the dependencies directly, you just have to observe the correlations in the market prices of the components.  Then you can compute these really tight sounding confidence intervals on the correlations of various components because you have all this market data.  Of course, the market can’t take into account what it doesn’t understand.  So you see a bunch of 25-sigma events.  At least, your model says they are 25-sigma.  Oops!

Whenever I have a question about health matters that is too complex for an MD or academic researcher to get right, I ask Kevin.  Nobody I know has a better combination of broad-based current knowledge of the primary literature, plus a whole-system view and understanding of compex dynamics, plus the practical will and experience in living by (and updating) his conclusions.

Here are some questions I had for Kevin recently and his answers.

Rafe: Do the BPA results (such as they are) cause you concern?  Do you still use your Nalgene bottle?  Would you let your infant or child drink from a plastic bottle or sippy-cup?

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Has anyone read the entire text of the stimulus package?

The ambiguity of this question is intentional.

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My other favorites were these:

  • Tim Berners-Lee
  • Bonnie Bassler
  • Rosamund Zander
  • Willie Smits
  • Dan Ariely
  • Liz Coleman

I’ll post their talks when they come out, but you can check them out from the program guide in the mean time.

What were your favorites?

Daniel Dennett and others have called Darwin’s theory of evolution the best idea anyone has ever had.  That means that all the ideas that Socrates, Da Vinci, Newton and Einstein ever had, plus all the ideas that everyone else has ever had are also rans.  It would be impossible to really justify such a claim objectively, but I will give my guess as to why it might be considered so, at least by luminaries in Western society.

My suggestion is that evolution is the first theory — in the scientific tradition — based on the principle of emergence.  That is, it looks at a system from the bottom up, starting with behavior at the micro level and yielding behavior at the macro level.

Regardless of the above, what gets your vote for the best idea ever?

Thought of the Day

We talk about how we are all one, more similar than we are different.  And of course it’s true, but…

Our lives are so different.  And the gap is widening all the time.  The diversity of experience increases, as the world becomes more complex, as we create new ways of existing, physically, mentally, socially, virtually.

This is part of the paradox of “progress” and the global network effect; the possibility for common understanding increases, yet the difficulty of such a feat does too, as we branch farther and wider from our common experience.

Gary Marcus says he’d like for there to be a course on metacognition for kids:

Call it “The Human Mind: A User’s Guide,” aimed at, say, seventh-graders.  Instead of emphasizing facts, I’d expose students to the architecture of the mind, what it does well, and what it doesn’t.  And most important, how to cope with its limitations, to consider evidence in a more balanced way, to be sensitive to biases in our reasoning, to make choices in ways that better suit our long-term goals.

What a brilliant and practical idea.

Anyone want to take a stab at a syllabus?

Kevin has a few threads regarding the effect that micro behaviors have when aggregated to macro behaviors:

It occurred to me as I was reading this Huffington Post article that there is a reverse-emergent dynamic that occurs when countries (often through their leaders) send signals to other countries through word and action. Continue Reading »

I try not to practice false modesty (those of you who know me well probably just did a spit take at that understatement).  So while I try to stand up and admit when I’m wrong, I also like to stand up and point out where I’m right.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to any of you that I came to the conclusion that climate models are pretty much total bullshit. My problem with them is that they are incomplete, overfitted, and unproven.  It turns out that one of the foremost experts on forecasting in general also thinks that these models have no predictive value. In fact, items (6) and (7) of their statement shows that you can predict the future temperature really well simply by saying it will be the same as the current temperature.

You can read their more formal indictment of climate forecasting methods here.

Oh snap!

When I was an undergraduate studying macroeconomics, I came to the conclusion that it was pretty much total bullshit.  Because I was in a co-terminal masters program, I was also studying graduate level decision theory, game theory, microeconomics, behavioral economics, and dynamic systems. In comparison, it seemed clear to me that macroeconomics was not a coherent study of a complex system.

Lately, Arnold Kling’s blog posts have been reinforcing this belief. However, we may both be wrong.  Arnold studied and practiced macroeconomics in the late 1970s.   Given the delay in propagating knowledge to the undergraduate level, that’s probably also what was taught in my late 1980s undergraduate textbook. However, Will Ambrosini observes that Arnold’s views are outdated and this is a problem with non-macro economists in general. He points to this essay and I find myself convinced that modern macroeconomics is a coherent study of a complex system.

I thought this might provide you some measure of comfort.  If anyone wants me to summarize the particulars of why I changed my mind, let me know.

Symposium Proposal

There is a proposed symposium on “Complex Adaptive Systems and the Threshold Effect: Views from the Natural and Social Sciences” on Nov. 5 – 7, 2009 in Arlington, VA.  According to the details, “A final determination for scheduling this event will depend partially on the amount of interest from the community…”  If you want to learn more or express your interest, email tedsaid@gmail.com.

Powerful Images

Click here to see the whole set.

hat tip: mom

Focusing Sound

Okay, this is cool.  Be sure to watch to the end:

The NY Times reports.

Here’s my theory:  someone who drinks more than three cups of coffee a day can’t possibly sit still and actually gets their ass off the couch and does shit, thereby stimulating the body and brain, a known and powerful way to reduce dementia risk.

hat tip: Daniel Horowitz

Designing for Generosity

Clay Shirky is always a great speaker.  Here’s his Pop!Tech from last year:

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The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.  (James Branch Cabell)

I am currently reading What Are You Optimistic About?, a collection of short essays by thought leaders in many different disciplines on the eponymous subject.  I’m also reading True Enough, a compelling argument by Farhad Manjoo for how despite — nay, because of — the fire hose of information that permeates modern society and is available for the asking, the schism between what’s true and what we believe is widening; a polemic on polemics if you will.  Taken together, these two books suggest to me that there is a case, not for being optimistic per se, but for why you should consciously, actively try hard to become an optimist if you aren’t already.

Continue Reading »

Particle Physics Follow Up

In the comments to this post, Rafe and Daniel asked me to tell them the punch line of Lightness of Being.  I’ll do my best.  Spoilers ahead.

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How Our Moral Compasses Fail Us

From the comments on my Introduction to this series, it appears I have discovered a controversial topic. Good. My first objective will be to illustrate why we cannot rely on  moral compasses to guide society. After some thought, I have decided to break the topic of moral compasses into two posts: how they fail and why they fail.

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The Challenge

Here’s a contest model for spurring innovation that I’d like to explore:

  1. 50 participatns ante a pre-determined amount of money
  2. Each participant submits original work (of a pre-determined type)
  3. Each participant votes for one winner (other than themselves)
  4. Winner gets the money

Continue Reading »

Good Particle Physics Book

I apologize for the posting lull.  I’ve had a bad cold and been struggling to add Monte Carlo simulation to my discrete stochastic model of the startup lifecycle (if anyone is planning on using Oracle’s Crystal Ball, I can tell you the good and bad). But I’m almost finished with my next substantial post.

In the meantime, I finished a really good physics book: Lightness of Being by Nobel prize winner Frank Wilczek. It requires a basic knowledge of quantum mechanics (I suggest Al-Khalili’s Quantum) and particle physics (any recent popular book that spends more than one chapter on the Standard Model).

Given that, it does an awesome job of explaining three things that have always bothered me. First, how the strong force can possibly get more powerful the farther away you get. Second, why we can’t break protons and neutrons into their component quarks.  Third, where the heck a proton’s mass really comes from. It turns out all three things are related and the explanation is quite elegant.  I don’t know why the dozen other physics books I’ve read in the last five years ommitted an explanation (or at least an explanation that stuck with me).

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Red Pill or Blue Pill?

As we approach the inauguration of a new leader who trying to be truly post-partisan, I think Jonathan Haidt’s TED brilliant talk is apropos:

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The Emergent Fool

We changed the name/URL of the blog to better reflect that it’s a group blog now and not just Rafe.  Same kind of content though, and we didn’t remove any existing content.

Here is the scariest image in all of cancer:

cancermortality

Graph from Fortune Magazine article.

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Third-Hand Smoke

Thanks to Daniel Horowitz for alerting me to third-hand smoke.  I guess then if you pass on epigentic mutations to your children from third-hand smoke exposure it’s called fourth-hand smoke?

I was recently having a conversation with a mutual friend of Rafe’s and mine.  Like the two of us, he’s quite smart, well educated, and socially aware.  I respect his thinking a lot. However, during the course of this conversation, it became clear to me that he holds what I think of as an overly moralistic view of human behavior.

From my perspective, it seemed like he thinks that people’s behavior is governed primarily by an internal moral compass rather than incentives. So if you want to change their behavior, you should redirect their moral compass rather than adjust their incentives. People who don’t adjust their behavior are defecting from society and should be sanctioned.

I encounter this view quite often in my social circle and this instance inspired me to write a series of posts to explain how I think things actually work.  You’re free to disagree with me, of course. In fact, I expect most people to disagree with me. But I’ve thought rather hard about this issue and I’ll put my model up against the moralistic view when it comes to predicting a population’s average behavior or choosing an effective policy prescription.

Continue Reading »

Click here to read part 4 in this series.

As 2008 closes, it appears that momentum is picking up for the somatic evolution view of cancer.  Here are three recently published papers of note:

  • The Evolution of Cancer (Goymer, et al, Aug 2008, Nature)
  • Cancer Research Meets Evolutionary Biology (Pepper, et al, in press, 2008 Evolutionary Applications; Santa Fe Institute working paper)
  • Genome Based Cell Population Heterogeneity Promotes Tumorigenicity: The Evolutionary Mechanism of Cancer (Ye, et al, Dec 2008, Journal of Cellular Physiology)

Continue Reading »


Some friends and I watched the above talk together by Dan Gilbert on the various ways humans made logical errors in decision making.  If you are a behavioral economist or are into psychology literature, you are probably all too familiar with the experiments on this subject, but it’s worth watching anyway.

There was some criticism of the talk in that it does ignore the fact that given limited resources in making decisions, the heuristics that we humans use (i.e. the rules of thumb, like price being a good indicator of quality) serve us very well most of the time.  It’s only under specific circumstances that these heuristics lead to logical errors and bad decisions.  Thus, the talk left some people thinking that the point Gilbert was making is that we’re all pretty bad decision makers and we should learn to transcend these error-prone heuristics.  The critics further suggested that no, we’re not bad decision makers, we are in fact really good 95% of the time, and furthermore it’s not really logical to waste our time trying to be better because the cost is too steep.  We’d waste every moment of our lives figuring out what a good price is for a bottle of wine.

My interpretation is slightly different.  Continue Reading »

Emergence 101

[I just noticed the video links were broken in my original post, so I’m reposting this]

Apparently this PBS NOVA program aired last year, but somehow I missed it.  Definitely worth watching (and looking at the examples), especially if you are mystified by all of this “emergence mumbo jumbo”:

Part 1

Part 2

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Taking the cue from social software sites like Digg, the Obama transition team is leveraging the wisdom of your crowd to find out what the most important and relevant questions are that the public wants answered.  Judging from the top page of questions as voted by several hundred thousand people, the relevance/importance quotient is very high.  Below is the email that tipped me off to this latest development in “government 2.0”.

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Going Meta on “Autonomy”

Continuation of: Focusing on “Autonomy”

I’ve been trying to reconcile Rafe’s an my views on this topic.  I actually think we agree on the broad themes related to our argument over “autonomy”.  From my perspective, it seems like the only real disagreement is on the implications for humans.

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I typed “social entrepreneurship tax credit” into Google and the top result was this page on BarackObama.com.  There are some good ideas there, and I hope they get implemented once he takes office.  But I’d like to see even more.
Continue Reading »

Vodpod videos no longer available.

The reason I like this talk so much (besides that it’s well-presented) is that it introduces us to the idea of invisible etiology.  Such a powerful concept, one that I feel has the power to help us solve so many mysteries, once we take it seriously.

Something that I’ve been thinking about lately: does homelessness have an invisible etiology (or etiologies), and if so, what is it?

Homelessness

foodonfoot

This is a picture of what Food on Foot did on Christmas.  Continue Reading »

Paul Phillips’s blog entry quoting Greenwald on Bill Moyers sums up it up pretty well.  And I’ve wondered what the Obama administration is going to do about this and what they should do.  The arguments for not pursuing the Bush administration’s crimes are good ones.  We have such big fish to fry with the economy, climate and wars that it would be a huge distraction right now.  And secondarily, it would come off as divisiveness in a time when we need it least, not to mention that it was one of Obama’s main campaign promises change the culture of partisan politics that has plagued us for so long.

Continue Reading »

Focusing on “Autonomy”

Continuation of: Superfoo

Rafe and I had a great chat on the phone today about Superfoos.  I think we agreed that there will be multiple instances of agents emerging in the level immediately above humans but there is always a single top-level network in local space.  I think we also agreed that the “awareness” at this level will be different from human -awareness.  It probably won’t subsume our awareness (at least without a technological singularity) but will exhibit properties such as self-preservation.

Where we got stuck was on the concept of autonomy.  Stuck isn’t really the right word.  We both greatly expanded our conceptual space around autonomy.  But we didn’t come to agreement on a definition.  However, it was a very productive conversation, so I thought I’d put my impressions down here.

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This year for his birthday, Eben decided to host this webinar and invited all his contacts to join him online in lieu of a party and gifts.  What a brilliant concept and even more brilliant execution.  Eben (and Scott Brandon Hoffman, founder of CharityWater.org) truly epitomize the new philanthropy.

Superfoo

Response to Superorganism as Terminology.

I was actually about to post something about terminology, so I’m glad this came up. It’s just so difficult to choose words to describe concepts that have little precedent, without going to the extreme of overloading on the one end (e.g. “organism”) or the other extreme of being totally meaningless (e.g. “foo”). I have tried to use terms that are the closest in meaning to what I’m after but there’s no avoiding the misinterpretation. I can only hope by defining and redefining to an audience that is not quick to make snap judgments but rather considers the word usage in context, we can converge to at least a common understanding of what I am claiming. From there at least we have a shot at real communication of ideas and hopefully even agreement.

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Great Nutrition Tips

I’ve plugged Dr. Ann before on this blog, but this 13 minute video is definitely worth checking out, esp. during the holidays.  Ignore the marketing and just listen to the information and tips.  The science of nutrition is extremely complex, but there are some well-understood principles that Dr. Ann focuses on.  If you are like me, you have to understand the processes before you will believe something and take action.  I think her book is the best out there as it’s a combination of scientific consensus, practical tips, and easy-to-understand explanations of why the recommendations work.

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Greening the Bailout

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He makes so much sense!  Kevin?


Bloomberg reports that Credit Suisse has decided to pay managing directors’ and directors’ bonuses in the form of an ownership interest in the bank’s toxic mortgage-backed assets. The value of these assets will emerge over the next eight years as the assets mature or default.  This is outstanding!  The executives have to lie in the bed they made. Of course, this would have been better if they did this prospectively back when the executives were the making decisions that created these securities.  But perhaps banks will adopt some sort of similar long term performance measurement mechanism going forward.

Via Volokh Conspiracy via Megan McArdle via ClusterStock.

Superorganism as Terminology

Response to: Response to “Superorganism Considered Harmful”

I liked Rafe’s responses to my questions. It revealed the heart of the matter.  From the perspective of an interdisciplinarian such as myself, I believe the concept of a “superorganism” is purely a matter of terminology.

Continue Reading »

Your Seat at the Table

The Obama Transition team wants your input on how to fix the country:

No, seriously.  Check out the various meetings they have upcoming and the comments sections that go with each.  Some topics like Health Care have lots of comments.  Others like the Humanitarian, Refugee, and Asylum Policy meeting currently have no comments, which means you could have quite a bit of influence by being the only one to spout your opinion…

So, what do you think?  Will Obama policy be shaped by this promising open forum with unprecedented input from the average citizen, or will this end up as just good PR?

p.s. is that Stephen Colbert looking askance at the bald dude?  :-)

Embodied Cognition

Until recently, Artificial Intelligence research has been grounded on a theory of cognition that is based on symbolic reasoning.  That is, somewhere in our heads the concepts are represented symbolically and reasoned about via deduction and induction.

At long last, AI researchers are truly learning from human cognition (oh the irony!)  Introducing Leo, the robot that learns to model and reason about the world like human babies do, via embodied experience and social interactions:

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For those who missed the first three parts:

Any underlying theme of this thread is how reliance on reductionism causes us to miss the key invisible etiologies that are necessary to make progress on understanding, treating, detecting and preventing cancer.

In the first three parts of this series, I pointed out how the invisible etiology of somatic evolution has great explanatory and predictive power for oncology.  A new paper by some researchers on the vanguard of complex systems thinking shows how adding a complementary ecological model leads us to the promising approach of ecological therapy.

A Nature Review article published a couple of years ago summarizes the case for cancer as an evolutionary and ecological process

hat tip: David Basanta

Vodpod videos no longer available.

We are living in a time wherein the sound bite is the modal and most influential form of public discourse.  Which is unfortunate because of its unidirectional, one-to-many nature.  I’m happy to report though that I see the signs of a return to more meaningful conversation in the form of online video.
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This is a response to Kevin’s post responding to my post.

Rafe makes an analogy to cells within a multicellular organism. How does this support the assertion that there will only be one superorganism and that we will need to subjugate our needs to its own?  Obviously, there are many multicellular organisms. Certainly, there are many single-celled organisms that exist outside of multicelluar control today.  So where is the evidence that there will be only one and that people won’t be able to opt out in a meaningful sense?

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We’ve talked about obesity as a virus and violence as a virus, both well-supported by the research.  Now there’s happiness as a virus.  Hardly a surprise, but I guess for new paradigms to become the accepted basis for organizing scientific thinking, they first have to become banal.  So let’s bring it on, what’s the next human behavior or emotion that will be featured in a “surprising”study showing a viral etiology?

hat tip: Daniel Horowitz

groupselection

This is from a recent Seed Magazine article.  Click on the image to enlarge it.

The Emergent Universe

In a previous post I asked what you thought this was:

mystery3

Here is the same system at different resolutions (lowest to highest):

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Living Things

mystery3

Without looking up the term Mpc/h, do you know what the above photo is?  I’ll give you some hints.

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Hina Chaudhry

Like does this mean you can cure heart disease?

She’s hesitant.  Nobody wants to say they can defeat the industrialized world’s number one killer.  Nobody wants to make promises about life, or quantify salvation.  But she fervently believes she’s got a shot.

This is what the 2008 Genius edition of Esquire Magazine had to say about Hina Chaudhry.  Her approach is to switch back on the mechanism that causes cells to divide in the heart, which doesn’t normally happen after birth in any mammal.  This is not a stem-cell approach, despite what it might sound like.

Looking on the web there appears to be very little written about this work, so I’m wondering how Esquire found her or chose her work to highlight.  I’d like to learn more if anyone has information they’d like to share.

What Stops Terrorism

40% percent of terrorist groups are defeated by police and intelligence operations.  43% percent end because they give up violence and join the political process.  Only 7% end as a result of military force.

This according to the research of Seth Jones, as reported in the 2008 Genius edition of Esquire Magazine.

Response to: Superorganism and Singularity

Rafe’s post covers a rather speculative topic. I think it’s worth stress testing so I am going to play skeptic without revealing my actual position.  But you can be assured that it’s at least somewhat nuanced.

Rafe knows more about this topic than I.  In general, I tend to trust his judgment in areas where he is expert. But I want to make sure he’s devoted enough due diligence before reaching his conclusions. Thus the stress test.

First, I’m going to try to demolish his assertions within the conceptual confines of his own analogy.  Then I’ll undermine the analogy. Finally, I’ll attack emergence itself as a concept with no predictive skill in this case.

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Incidentalomas

An incidentaloma according to wikipedia is “a tumor (-oma) found by coincidence (incidental) without clinical symptoms or suspicion.”  The provocative NY Times article below suggests that indolent tumors (i.e. ones that do not need treatment) may come and go as a normal part of life.  With better detection tools, we are finding more and more of these.  However our protocol for dealing with tumors is based on a time when tumors found were almost always non-incidental, non-indolent and requiring of positive action (like surgery).  According to Dr. Donald A. Berry, chairman of the department of biostatistics at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center:

It’s possible that we all have cells that are cancerous and that grow a bit before being dumped by the body. ‘Hell bent for leather’ early detection research will lead to finding some of them. What will be the consequence? Prophylactic removal of organs in the masses? It’s really scary.

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Rebooting America

Rebooting America

Anyone interested in how technology and policy can work together to form us a more perfect union should read Rebooting America.  If your budget is tight right now, you can download the PDF version for free.

While you are at it, check out the Personal Democracy Forum which is the larger effort that Rebooting America is part of.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed. It is the only thing that ever has.”
Margaret Mead

There is an aspect to The Singularity which is not discussed much, an orthogonal dimension that is already taking shape, and which is perhaps more significant than what is implied by the “standard definition”:

The Singularity represents an “event horizon” in the predictability of human technological development past which present models of the future may cease to give reliable answers, following the creation of strong AI or the enhancement of human intelligence.  (Definition taken from The Singularity Summit website)

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When I emailed AT&T about an outrageous international roaming charge that I wanted reversed, I wasn’t expecting much in the way of a positive response.  But I got one, and I am making good on my promise to let people know about it.  If anything is a complex system, cell phone customer service certainly is, so I view this as on topic :-)
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Metabolism Boosters

Pop Quiz: what are the four ways that vegetables and fruits act as a superstar health shield?  Find out here.

Click here for more Dr. Ann videos.

Obama’s Must Do List

Everybody has their wishlist and “must do” lists for the new President.  Back in March of 2007, the NY Times published this Op Ed piece that I personally believe is critical and outlines what needs to be done above all else.  The article goes into much more detail about specifics, but the overall thrust is threefold:

  • Restore Habeas Corpus
  • Stop Illegal Spying
  • Ban Torture, Really

I’m curious to know though, what do you think the priorities should be for Obama’s presidency?

The following is a recent paper by Henry Heng published in JAMA.  I’ve linked concepts mentioned in the paper to corresponding explications from this blog.


JAMA. 2008;300(13):1580-1581.
The Conflict Between Complex Systems and Reductionism
Henry H. Q. Heng, PhD
Author Affiliations: Center for Molecular Medicine and Genetics, Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.

Descartes’ reductionist principle has had a profound influence on medicine. Similar to repairing a clock in which each broken part is fixed in order, investigators have attempted to discover causal relationships among key components of an individual and to treat those components accordingly. Continue Reading »

Change.gov

Okay, Kev, here’s your chance on affecting climate policy, go crazy!

Visiting my 90 year old grandma a couple of weeks ago, I saw the opportunity for a product that I think would have a lot of success in the marketplace.  Like the iPhone though, it’s not so much the idea — I’m sure someone is working on or already has the idea — but rather in the implementation and interface.
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From the Heart

I have a bicuspid aortic valve, a congenital condition which exists in up to 2% of the general population:

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Autocatalytic Systems

self-replicator

The above is a self-replicating dynamic structure from a class of systems called cellular automata (click here to run the simulation).  Below is a self-replicating dynamic structure from a class of systems called “life”:
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Historical Inflection Point

Click here for election night slideshow

Remember Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis about 80s Wall Street excess?  Well, he has a terrific article on some guys who saw the subprime meltdown coming and bet heavily on it.  It’s great narrative and a reminder that whenever someone’s model departs substantially from reality, there is an arbitrage opportunity.  Hey, maybe we should rename this blog “Reality Arbitrage”.

What is Cancer?

[ I’m asking for your help in answering this question, read past the fold to see how ]

In my post on invisible etiology, I challenged us all to be as open-minded as possible when dealing with our most complex problems, for this is the only way to make the invisible become visible.  Here’s where I attempt to practice what I preach.
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Invisible Etiology

One of the most poignant moments of this year’s Pop!Tech for me — which, BTW had many — was Gary Slutkin’s talk on the idea of violence being a virus.  You may have heard about his work in stopping violence in Chicago in a NY Times Magazine cover article earlier this year.  The premise is simple: if you throw out what you think you know about violence and just look at the etiology of how it manifests in the world, you find incredible similarities to the etiology of microbial viruses.  This includes not only how it spreads from person to person, but also the larger epidemiological patterns, and importantly, how it can be stopped via interventions which logically follow from the hypothesis that violence is a virus.  Not that violence is caused by those invisible critters we call viruses, but rather that violence itself is a virus.

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Back in June, I suggested that public voting records would be healthy for our democracy if the populace were comfortable revealing their voting records.  There is now a movement* and new web site for this called Who Voted? though they are not going as far as I am in advocating for revealing your actual choices.

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[EDITED 05/08/2009: see here] If you’ve been following my posts on the financial crisis (here, here, and here) and Singularity Summit (there, there, and there), you might wonder, “Uh, but how do we get there from here?”. It’s pretty obvious to me that the the road to economic advancement is paved with innovation. So we have to innovate our way from here to there.

I’m pretty sure I’ve figured out a way to supercharge what I call the “Innovation Economy”. My thinking was catalyzed by reading Nassim Taleb‘s The Black Swan. The basic idea is simple: if we want more groundbreaking firms like Google to come out of the Innovation Economy, we have to shove more startup feedstock into it.

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I’d like to find a domain name for this blog so that it’s not “rafefurst.wordpress.com” but rather is more inclusive of Kevin’s posting as well as potential future additional authors.  I’ve tried procuring the obvious things like complexsystems.com, but the owners want too much money for them.  So I’m asking you guys to get creative, find an available domain name (not one that is being squatted), and suggest it here.  The domain doesn’t necessarily have to do with “Complex Adaptive Systems”, but it should make sense for the content of the blog, however you interpret that.

Now that I’ve had a week to digest what I saw at the summit, I have some thoughts on the most likely path we’ll take to the singularity. From an absolute perspective, this path isn’t very likely because there are a lot of different ways to get there (or not get there). But given what I’ve seen so far, I assign this path the highest concentration of the admittedly diffuse conditional probability mass.

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Crowdsourcing Truthiness

Google Labs has a new service called “In Quotes” which might be tweakable to do a truth market of sorts.  Here’s the suggestion I just emailed them on this topic:

I would love to use Google “In Quotes” to crowdsource measures of truth.

For instance, I just saw this:

“In a world of hostile and unstable suppliers of oil, this nation will achieve strategic independence by 2025,” said Mr. McCain during a campaign speech. [ Wed, 29 Oct 2008 Washington Times ]

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One of the best speakers of Pop!Tech this year was also one of the best of TED.  But if you’ve seen Ben Zander‘s TED talk, you still need to see this one, it’s not the same!

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Here are a few more favorites, hot off the presses…

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Out of Poverty

One of the more inspiring talks at Pop!Tech this year was Paul Polak’s talk about serving the “other 90%” with life-saving and transformative products using a for-profit micro-franchise model that scales.  Paul’s vision and track-record speaks for itself, check it out.

One of the talks at Pop!Tech this year sparked intense emotions regardless of whether people agreed with the premise or not:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

To address these intense feelings and the demand for public discussion, a wiki was created, in which you are invited to join the discussion.  This forum was designed as “a place for a rich, lively, respectful and facts-based dialog on what’s necessary to address the serious economic challenges confronting America today.”  Hope to see you there.

Click here to go to the policy debate.

As most of you know, one of the commonly proposed paths to The Singularity is the development of artificial general intelligence (AGI). As you can read in my rundown of the Singularity Summit, speakers showcased a lot of progress in hardware substrate and software infrastructure, but no significant conceptual advances in implementing executive function in software.

Absence of evidence isn’t necessarily evidence of absence, but I believe that if anyone were making headway on this problem, the chances that someone at the summit would have alluded to it are high. Therefore, I predict that the first being with substantially higher g than current humans is much more likely to be an augmented human than an AGI [Edit: more thoughts on electronically enhancing humans here].

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I attended the Singularity Summit today. Overall, it was worth the time spent.  I did not attend the workshop on Friday because it didn’t look substantive when I reviewed the program.  Today, I spoke to several people who were there and they confirmed my prediction. I took 7 pages of notes at the summit and hope to have some insightful synthesis of the material in a few days [Edit: first thought here, more here].  In the meantime, here is a short review of the talks.

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Pop!Tech Notes, part 3

  • Sustainable ecocities (Dickson Despommier)
    • One shed of hydroponic barley = 200 acres of land
    • No new tech required
    • VerticalFarm.com
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Pop!Tech Notes, part 2

This session of 3 speakers has been the best so far.  All three were great speakers and must-watches on poptech.org.

Chris Anderson – attention and reputation are also economic markets; google is world’s largest reputation market (via pagerank); larry page and will wright are central bankers, like bernake; so is phil rosedale of second life; check out Maple Story (korean game coming to US); games enable time/money fungability

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As most of you already know, I am an anthropogenic global warming skeptic, aka “denier”.  Well, a new paper by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis has turned me into a credit crunch skeptic too.

The maintstream narrative on why we need a bailout is that credit is “frozen”. We can’t just let the financial sector sort itself out because it provides the credit “grease” that lubricates the rest of the economy.  The graphs in this paper make it pretty clear that the wheels of Main Street have plenty of grease. So it looks to me like the bailout is corporate welfare plain and simple.  It also means that Paulson and Bernanke talking about how bad things are to justify the bailout may have actually exacerbated any real recession by magnifying the psychological salience of the crisis.

Pop!Tech Notes, part 1

The conference is being streamed live via video on live.poptech.org

Theme of the conference is Scarcity and Abundance.

BarefootCollege.org (Bunker Roy)

  • training poor, illiterate rural, older women from around the world to engineers, take knowledge back to their village and transform it
  • decentralizing and spreading technical knowhow (women, no written word)
  • rainwater collection
  • solar electricity
  • teaching done only by illiterates (don’t even speak same language) because literates can’t teach illiterates
  • children’s parliment

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Two Paths to Empathy

By all accounts, the ability to empathize with others is the hallmark of social behavior.  Indeed, when we come across those rare individuals whom we view as anti-social, or those even more rare individuals that we label as sociopaths, the diminished or missing feature of their personality is empathy.

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In this video talk by Richard Darkins he gives some good food for thought on reification when he talks about Steve Grand’s views on things like whirlpools, electromagnetic fluctuations and walking sand dunes.  The most powerful example is this one (quoting Grand):

Think of an experience from your childhood. Something you remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all, you really were there at the time, weren’t you? How else would you remember it? But here is the bombshell: you weren’t there. Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that took place…Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made. If that doesn’t make your hair stand up on the back of your neck, read it again until it does, because it is important.

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As we saw in Act I and Act II, the current financial crisis was enabled by government interference in the housing and mortgage markets, then initiated by Wall Street’s willful blindness to systematic risk in the MBS market. Now we are observing the government’s flailing response.

First they bail out Bear Stearns.  Then they let Lehman go bankrupt.  But AIG gets a lifeline. On to a $700B bailout intended to purchase toxic MBSs. And most recently forcing several probably healthy banks to absorb $250B in government investment. Along the way, there were a bunch of changes to FDIC regulations and a see-sawing stock market.

You might be asking yourself, what the heck is going on here? The reason for all the flailing is that the government is attempting to implement a command and control solution to an extremely distributed problem.

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Will Wright’s demo of Spore illustrates some key concepts of complex systems, including the notion of simple rules generating complex behaviors, and also the power of recursively applied (i.e. fractal) computation at different levels.  Living systems leverage these same principles.
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When the bailout passed, I first thought this post was moot.  But then I reconsidered.  There’s still plenty of time to affect the implementation and several lessons to be learned.  Also, when I’m pissed off, it’s nice to know that I have a good reason.

In Act I, we saw how government meddling overheated the housing and mortgage markets. Now we’ll see how Wall Street took advantage of this opportunity and also apportion some blame to ourselves.

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Let me start by saying that the financial crisis is a very complex situation.  I read several economics blogs every day and quite a few academic papers every month.  My semi-professional opinion is that no economist even comes close to fully understanding the financial system, let alone the complete macroeconomy.  Luckily, I haven’t seen any of them delusional enough to assert that they do in a professional forum. So when you hear a talking head spouting off about the crisis, take what he says with a grain of salt (this includes me, of course). At best, he only sort of knows what he’s talking about.

Because of the complexity, I think we should be very careful to take baby steps.  Going off half-cocked is much more likely to make things worse than better.  I think we need to do three things.  First, we need to understand the underlying causes of the mortgage meltdown that kicked off the cascade (not because I think fixing the cause will solve the problem, but because it will help us avoid making things worse).  Second, we need to examine how the cascade was magnified so we can hopefully install some breaks going forward. Third, we need to agree on the outcomes we most want to prevent as a society (as individuals, I’m sure we all want to keep our houses, jobs, and savings).

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I am a fan of prediction markets.   They have typically done much better than polls at predicting the outcome of elections.  Why?  Here’s a thought experiment.  Consider who you think is going to win the election (not who you want to win).  Now consider that I was going to bet you $10,000 of your hard earned money on whether your prediction comes true.  Did that change your thinking at all?  Some of you might have even switched candidates once money was on the line.  That’s the difference between a poll and a prediction market.

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For those who liked all of the TED talks that I posted earlier this year, you might want to attend TED Global 2009.  Guaranteed to blow your mind.

So as not to waste my expensive schooling, I still keep up with economics as a hobby.  I don’t expect other people to generally share this interest, but it occurred to me that the current financial crisis is an excellent example of what happens when a complex adaptive system experiences a shock.  Is anybody curious to have us discuss this topic?  If so, what is specifically interesting to you?  My short answer is to read everything by Arnold Kling at EconLog.  Of course, I have a lot more thoughts if anyone wants to hear them.

Go Forth and Reify

reify |ˈrēəˌfī|
verb ( –fies, –fied) [ trans. ] formal
make (something abstract) more concrete or real

Imagine if an alien landed on Earth to study modern society and you were assigned the task of being its local guide.  You get to the subject of money and the alien is perplexed.  What is money?  Is it paper currency?  Clearly not, since you can exchange that paper for other forms of currency, such as coins, foreign bank notes, electronic funds, treasury bills, and all sorts of derivatives, assets (both tangible and intangible, liquid and illiquid), services, promises, and so on.  After hearing all of the various aspects of money, the alien tells you that money doesn’t really exist.

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I apologize for the posting lull. I actually spotted an issue than I wanted to address a few weeks ago, but I’ve been pondering how to approach it.  It’s pretty complicated and subtle.  I even ran a couple of drafts by Rafe to refine my thinking.  So please bear with me.

As I’ve mentioned before, I am a fan of Dave Zetland. When I saw him propagate what I think is a fundamentally false dichotomy in this post, I knew I had to take on the concept of Knightian uncertainty. It crops up rather often in discussions of forecasting complex systems and I think a lot of people use it as a cop out.

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Follow Up on the Ascetic Meme

Jay makes a thoughtful comment to my last post on the Ascetic Meme.  While I’m pleased that I was able to affect Jay enough to write such a comment, I’m dismayed that the effect was not the one I intended.  I don’t mean to be either insulting or hostile to the vast majority of regular people that are concerned about the environment.  Heck, I’m one of them.

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Kevin points out that perhaps I am giving chemotherapy short shrift and not looking at the bigger picture.  I would counter that you can’t really make the latency analogy with human life because we are all born terminal.  “Mean survival time” is a squirrely measure at best because how do you know if someone died (a) because of the cancer, (b) because of the chemo, or (c) because of some other factor (in which the cancer or chemo or both) could be confounding?

If you buy the somatic evolution (SE) argument then there are all sorts of consequences which contraindicate chemo in most cases. Continue Reading »

When I posted part 1, I didn’t realize that Scientific American would be coming out with an entire special issue devoted to cancer in the same month, including an article by Carl Zimmer entitled “Evolved for Cancer?“.

I had hoped that the article would be about the somatic evolution of cancer, and while it touches on this aspect briefly and tangentially, it mostly talks about the evolution of defenses against cancer within the human population as a whole.  There is a critical distinction here: somatic evolution occurs on the cells within a single body in the course of a single human lifetime,* while human evolution happens in a population of many humans over millions of years.** Continue Reading »

I’d like to thank everyone that stuck with me for Part I and Part II. Now we get to the punch line, which is very simple: because of the Ascetic Meme, we cannot trust our instincts when it comes to environmental policy.

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Cancer as Evolution

For anyone interested in learning about the complexity of cancer, I’d like to invite you to check out a forum I started a while ago (but only recently made public) called Cancer Complexity.

One of the main themes (but not the only one) in Cancer Complexity is the notion that cancer is an evolutionary process (as in Darwinian evolution), except that instead of populations of individual animals, the population of interest is the set of cells in the body of a single animal. Continue Reading »

Exploring the oceans

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Intelligence of crows

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6 ways mushrooms can save the world

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Why we know less than ever about the world

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TED Prize Wish: Once Upon a School

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TED Talk: Johnny Lee

Wiimote hacks

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Powerful stroke of insight

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As I discussed in Environmental Ideology and the Ascetic Meme, the Ascetic Meme is a severe form of the Frugality Meme. In this post, I’ll explore how I think it arises and the social interactions that emerge when the Ascetic Meme takes hold.

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TED Talk: Neil Turok

TED Prize Wish: African Einstein

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Mystery Box

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Animal Movement

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I figured it was time for a reset and so the following is a summary of much of the foundational posting that I’ve done on this blog so far.  As always, a work in progress, subject to refinement and learning…

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[ This is an edited version of a blog comment on Brandon Kein’s Wired Science post here ]

The question of whether we will “break through” to a superorganism or collapse through any number of spiraling cascades or catastrophic events is the subject of Ervin Laszlo’s book, The Chaos Point, which I highly recommend.  In it, he gives a sweeping view of the complex evolutionary dynamic (focusing on human society), and makes a solid argument that we are at an inflection point in history right now, similar to the “saltation” that begat multicellularity.
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Electroshock therapy

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“We have to learn how to use our words. It’s a fantastic thing — we humans are so easily trapped in our own words. The word time, for instance — we run into puzzles about the concept of time and then we say, oh, what a terrible thing. We don’t realize we’re the source of the puzzles because we invented the word….”

— John Wheeler

A Matrix of Epithets

Arnold Kling blogs about a recent video discussion between Robin Hanson and Will Wilkinson.  I commented on one of the points Arnold picked out of the debate and then realized that I could construct a matrix of epithets based on my analysis.  As it involves evolutionary psychology, I thought some of you might enjoy it.  WARNING: EXPLICIT LANGUAGE.

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Hive Mindstein

David Basanta’s blog has an interesting thread (quite a few of them actually).  Here’s the setup but you should read the original post, including the Wired article:

Apparently, some people are seeing some potential in cloud computing not just as an aid to science but as a completely new approach to do it. An article in Wired magazine argues precisely that. With the provocative title of The end of theory, the article concludes that, with plenty of data and clever algorithms (like those developed by Google), it is possible to obtain patterns that could be used to predict outcomes…and all that without the need of scientific models.

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I’ve always been ambivalent about environmentalism. On the one hand, my gut instinct is usually to conserve and preserve as a default policy. On the other hand, a lot of environmentalists seem to adopt an absolutist posture. Any harm to the environment is bad. No tradeoffs. No cost-benefit analysis. No looking at the big picture. I’ve become more concerned with this tension as the need for practical environmental policy has become more imminent. I think I’ve managed to tease out some of the underlying causes of this tension and I believe it boils down to what Rafe and I have started calling the Ascetic Meme. Continue Reading »

Top 10 TED Talks

There’s a great highlights reel here with links to the top 10 most popular so far.

Dynamic Architecture

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How Creativity is Being Strangled by the Law

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A Journey to the Center of Your Mind

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World-class Health Care for Rwanda

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Medical Inventing

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I recently alerted Rafe to the latest Copenhagen Consensus, which aims to set priorities for the most cost effective interventions to improve global welfare. Items (1) and (3) were micronutrient supplementation and fortification. Rafe expressed concern that these were a “band aid approach”. After pondering this characterization for a bit, I have some thoughts on when to apply a “band aid approach” and the conditions we should attach to such approaches.

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Yesterday I blogged about personal vote verification.  At the group level, I recommend supporting the National Popular Vote.  While most people (70%) favor a popular vote for president, the U.S. Constitution calls for an electoral college system.  The National Popular Vote movement is extremely clever in that it doesn’t require a constitutional change:

Under the U.S. Constitution, the states have exclusive and plenary (complete) power to allocate their electoral votes, and may change their state laws concerning the awarding of their electoral votes at any time. Under the National Popular Vote bill, all of the state’s electoral votes would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes—that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538).

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I take it as accepted fact at this point that the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election would have gone to John Kerry if everyone who attempted to vote that day were able to and all the votes were counted correctly.  Here’s the the Wikipedia entry on the subject and here’s a documentary to get you started.

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The myth of violence

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Memes and “temes”

Apropos of Kevin’s post yesterday on the “Singularity“, we need to be taking more seriously cultural agency (which includes technological and socio-technological agency):

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Rafe’s post on complex systems defending themselves randomly collided in my mind with this post and paper by Robin Hanson on the Singularity to spur a stray thought. What if the Singularity were catalyzed by changes in organizations rather than intelligence or manufacturing?

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I’ve talked on here about the importance of taking seriously the notion of agency as it applies to systems other than biological.  In reading a recent Wired retrospective on what they called wrong, I was struck by feeling that their error was the same in all three cases, and that is underestimating the degree to which complex systems will defend themselves in the face of attack as if they were living, breathing organisms.

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As I mentioned in my introductory post, I hope you’ll pay particular attention to interventions where Rafe and I agree something should be done. Whenever such agreement emerges, we plan on letting you know. Hopefully, we’ll inspire you to support them as well. As it happens, we have just identified such an intervention, WaterAid. I stumbled across this worthy cause while researching a slightly different problem. What follows is the long version of the story. Please bear with me; it sets the stage for future posts.

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Happy to Be Here…

I’d like to thank Rafe for graciously inviting me to occasionally co-blog with him here. I see this collaboration as an extension of the many engaging discussions we’ve had over the years. You see, we’re sort of kindred spirits. We both grew up in Southern California beach towns as children of middle class parents, with psychologist fathers. We both went to Stanford where we variously worked, played, and lived together.

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Welcome, Kevin Dick

True to its title, this blog itself is adapting.  I’m pleased that one of the smartest people I know has accepted my invitation to join me as a primary contributor.  I’ll let Kevin introduce himself from here…

Beyond the Gene

In an earlier post, I argued that the gene concept is in bad need of a makeover.  It turns out that Evelyn Fox Keller and David Harel feel the same way and have made an actual start of it in a paper titled Beyond the Gene.  In the paper they propose a new lexicon:

Pop Quiz: Which is a bigger determinant of cancer mortality in America, being poor or being black?

According to Dr. Harold Freeman of the National Cancer Institute, poverty is the bigger factor today, but it hasn’t always been so:

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An eye-opening graphic from Wired’s cover this month on “Peak Water“:

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In a previous post, I argued that we humans suffer from a destructive oversimplifying habit of linear extrapolation.  This professor argues the same point, but he falls into the next logical trap, thinking that exponential extrapolation solves the problem.

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Global Warming

A few months ago a friend of mine engaged me in a discussion about the controversy surrounding global warming.  If you are surprised to hear that there is still controversy, read on; I was equally surprised.

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TED Talk: Rives

4 a.m.

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I have talked about some of the dangerous aspects of main stream media in the past.  Recently I was reading The Black Swan, in which the author argues that watching TV news, listening to news on the radio, and even reading newspapers actually makes you less informed (and dangerously so) than if you were to tune out completely.

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How do ants know what to do?

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The web’s secret stories

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Greening the ghetto

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Releasing the music in your head

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Setting global priorities

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A new prediction market site with a twist: your profits in the market get donated to the charity of your choice.

I was concerned that it may look noble but that they might be profiting from the bid/ask spread, so I wrote and asked them.  Here is their response:

No fees, except the 5% on top of any funds put into your account. That fee does little more than cover the credit card processing charge. For example, if you want to put $5 into your account, you will be charged $5.25, and you will have $5 in your account to trade with. After a while, maybe you’ll have grown your account to $50, all of which you can ask us to give away to the charity of your choice. No fees on donations. Another way of saying it is that 100% of the funds that are in trading accounts will eventually be given away to charities chosen by the winners.

Very cool, I hope it takes off.

Avoiding aging

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How brain science will change computing

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The Gotham Prize is a laudable new effort to provide incentive for new approaches to cancer.  In response to their recent announcement of their first awards, I have sent them the following open letter.  If you would like to express your own opinion on the matter, I encourage you to provide your feedback to them directly from their contact page.

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TED Talks: Wade Davis

Endangered cultures

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Many people would admit to not understanding cancer well, but fewer people would admit to not understanding evolution well.  Here are some challenges to our understanding of both.

Starvation may help cancer treatment. “As little as 48 hours of starvation afforded mice injected with brain cancer cells the ability to endure and benefit from extremely high doses of chemotherapy that non-starved mice could not survive.”

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TED Talks: Al Gore

New thinking on climate crisis

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Notes from TED

Here are some notes that I took at TED 2008.  I have a bunch more on each of the speakers individually which I may post as time permits.  Let me know if you want me to expand any of the notes below into a full post.

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Mobile phones fight poverty

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Schools kill creativity

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What makes us happy

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TED Talk: Amy Smith

Simple lifesaving design

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Some people would say “Best” and “Powerpoint Presentation” are oxymoronic in combination.  But I disagree.  Powerpoint and its digital slideshow ilk (e.g. Keynote) are a relatively new medium, and it is the job of the slideshow creator and the presenter to make the presentation kick ass.  Al Gore proved this point with his slideshow that was so compelling that it was turned into an Oscar-winning movie.  One could argue that his was more about the presenter than the slideshow, but there are examples of amazing stand-alone slideshows, like this one:

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Two for one special…

Debunking myths about the “third world”

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For those of you who are enjoying these talks and want to check out more than one of my favorites per day, you can cut to the chase on my TED profile favorites page.  You will have to register there, but it’s free to do so.

Stories of Africa

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The Paradox of Choice

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How to fix broken states

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The science of love, and the future of women

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Shermer on Science

Much of what gets published in scientific journals and is help up as “good science” these days is just an excuse for the authors to show off their math skills.  Never mind whether the mathematical models being used correspond to the reality they are supposed to be describing.  There is strong incentive based on the “publish or perish” dictum in academia for this trend to continue.  Michael Shermer wrote a recent Scientific American article which makes the case well and calls for more integrative and narrative scientific publishing.

After watching about 150 of the TED talks from archive, and around 100 live ones, I’ve collected a few favorites.  I’ll try to post one of them a day.  Let me know what you think!

The universe is queerer than we can suppose

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Complex Links: TED

I attended the TED Conference this year for the first time.  It was a transformative experience, one that I hope everyone can have in some form or another before too long.  One way to simulate being there is watch as many of these incredible talks from past TED conferences as you can in a short period of time.  If you are inspired, check out the TED Prize and how you can be a part of a growing global meta-movement for positive change in the world.

I will be blogging about things that piqued my interest at TED, but below are some cool links that I came away with:

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X Prize Annuity Funds

In the March 9, 2008 Sunday Magazine section of the NY Times, Freakonomics authors, Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt wrote about an idea I shared with them (with my permission of course). Given all of the interest and critique that’s resulted, I am posting the original conception below and encourage you to express your thoughts about the project either in the comments here or on the Freakonomics blog. If you are interested in becoming involved beyond just providing public input, just say so in your comment and I will contact you directly.

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Mechanical Turk

A few months ago, on a different blog I posted a method for reading books for free on Amazon. Hopefully they didn’t take offense to this but rather saw it for what I did which was a way to get people interested in a book enough to want to purchase it. But just in case Amazon has any hard feelings, I will make amends here by plugging one of their little-known but extremely powerful services called Mechanical Turk.

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What is a Gene?

Not having had any serious biological training I have to go to Wikipedia and Google to learn the basics. And I’m often surprised to find that concepts everyone uses don’t have good consensus amongst scientists. When reading the Wikipedia entry for “gene”, it occurs to me that if the concept didn’t predate the discovery of DNA, it would not exist.

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Parrondo’s paradox is the well-known counterintuitive situation where individually losing strategies or deleterious effects can combine to win…. Over the past ten years, a number of authors have pointed to the generality of Parrondian behavior, and many examples ranging from physics to population genetics have been reported. In its most general form, Parrondo’s paradox can occur where there is a nonlinear interaction of random behavior with an asymmetry, and can be mathematically understood in terms of a convex linear combination.

From Developments in Parrondo’s Paradox (Derek Abbott)

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Complex Links: Cancer

Seeing Sigmoids

One of the most basic but misleading heuristics that the human mind uses is that of linearity. If we see a progression (say 0, 1, 2), our first instinct is that the next step follows linearly (namely 3). But there is no a priori reason to prefer the linear interpretation to any other, say quadratic (which would suggest the next step in the sequence is 4). For whatever reason – probably due to the relative simplicity of linearity – our brains seem wired to prefer linear explanations to non-linear. Continue Reading »

Coherence

I posted earlier on emergent causality. One aspect that needs to be elaborated on is the concurrent, self-interdependent nature of emergence, or in other words the chicken and egg problem. Continue Reading »

Alex Ryan’s Diagram

Click here to enlarge.

I have spent a lot of time on this blog discussing evolution and emergence, the distinction between the two and the interplay thereof.  All the while I have wished that I had a diagram like like  Alex Ryan‘s above (posted with permission), as it does much better then the proverbial thousand words.

There is a myth in evolutionary biology, as well as in the zeitgeist, that evolution by natural selection is all about competition.

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The Secret

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last year, you know about the self-help phenomenon called The Secret. Perhaps you even bought the DVD or book or had (multiple) friends tell you about it, or even buy it for you as a gift. The Secret is not without its critics, of course. And the real question in my mind is, if it’s so widely watched/read and if so many people are attempting to put its principles into practice, why haven’t we noticed the positive effects on large swaths of society (at least American society where it’s been marketed the most)? There are countless answers to this question, including, “it takes time,” “the effects are mostly internal,” and “it doesn’t work.” I have a different take on it. Continue Reading »

Autism and Mercury

A recent study funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta claims that thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used for many years in vaccines, is “not associated with problems in speech, intelligence, memory, coordination, attention, or other measures of childhood development.” For those unaware of the thimerosal controversy, it has been claimed by many that it causes or is a factor in the development of autism. Michael Goldstein, vice president of the American Academy of Neurology said of the CDC study that it was, “enough to convince me that this small amount of mercury … was not harmful to the children.”

However, there is a glaring problem with this study. While it seemed comprehensive with respect to thimerosal exposure, it apparently did so by combing health plan records, not by attempting to measure levels of mercury in the actual bodies of the children or their mothers during pregnancy. Continue Reading »

I just finished reading Complex Adaptive Systems and thought I’d share some of the stuff I underlined and point out how it relates to certain themes and claims in this blog. The organization of these quotes is my own, not related to the chapter or section headings of the book necessarily. Continue Reading »

I can count on one hand the number of times my inbox has been empty in my life. If you are like me, your email inbox is the center of your organizational universe. It’s the main “to do” list, and when the emails start piling up unread or unprocessed, it creates anxiety. A whole industry has cropped up to address such angst by teaching people practical tactics for becoming more efficient with their time. While this is good and all, it doesn’t seem to address the Fundamental Theorem of Email: the rate you receive new email is directly proportional to the speed with which you reply. Some corollaries: Continue Reading »

Ecologists speak about two types of cooperation — mutualism and commensalism — which distinguish whether both or just one of a pair is benefiting. I’d like to look at a different dimension of cooperation that has to do with communication. There are at least three different types of cooperation along this dimension, though perhaps you can distinguish more (if so, please post a comment!) Continue Reading »

The distinction between “genotype” and “phenotype” is an artificial one that obfuscates understanding past a certain point. As Dawkins points out in his selfish gene argument, from the standpoint of the gene, the gene is the phenotype and the organism is the genotype. This is not to say that we should go overboard and anoint the gene as supreme. “Genotype” and “phenotype” are concepts. From a complex system’s standpoint, they are two frozen snapshots (stages) in an ongoing autocatalytic cycle. Other stages between could be singled out and studied (e.g. ontogenesis), but we are not good at conceptualizing dynamic processes and prefer to look at relatively stable forms. We forget that these stable forms are a part of the autocatalytic process, which is ongoing. Continue Reading »

There has been a long-standing debate about the notion of group selection, the idea that populations of organisms can be selected for en masse over competing populations.  The Darwinian “purists” claim that natural selection (NS) only acts at the level of individuals.  But if that’s true, then how can multicellular organisms be subject to NS?  After all what are multicellular organisms if not a group of single cell organisms?
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Types of Emergence

Stability can be thought of as a measure of agency. That is, the more stable a system is, the better we are able to recognize it as a distinct agent, a system that actively, structurally or by happenstance persists through time, space and/or other dimensions. Burton Voorhees defines a concept of virtual stability as a “state in which a system employs self-monitoring and adaptive control to maintain itself in a configuration that would otherwise be unstable.” He clarifies that virtual stability is not the same as stability or metastability and gives formal definitions of all three.* By making a distinction between stability, metastability and virtual stability, we can gain further clarity on agency itself and the emergence of new agents and new levels of organization. Continue Reading »

[ The following is a repost from my MySpace blog, which is not accessible unless you have an account there. Also, the audience there isn’t really interested in this stuff :-) ]

The notion that the “network is the computer” – or at least that it could be – has been around for a while. But all actual implementations to date are either too specialized (e.g. SETI@home) or simplistic (e.g. p2p file-sharing, viruses, DDoS attacks) to be used for generalized computation, or are bound at some critical bottleneck of centralization. To this latter point, search engines hold promise, but the ones we are familiar with like Google are reliant on both central computational control (for web crawling and result retrieval) and central storage (for indexing and result caching). Lately social bookmarking/tagging has been used by those opting in to distribute the role of crawling, retrieval and indexing. It remains to be seen whether keyword tags and clusters thereof are semantically strong enough in practical terms to support general computation. Regardless, whatever heavy lifting is not supported by the representation level will end up falling on the protocol and computational levels. On the other end of the spectrum, the specialized and computationally intensive projects have the issue of how to divide the labor and coordinate results, and no efforts to date have yielded a way to generalize distributed computation without a high degree of specialized programming. Continue Reading »

Is Obesity Contagious?

Science News reports that a 2005 study of obese and normal-weighted people found that “30% of the obese group showed signs of previous adenovirus-36 infection, while only 11 percent of the lean group did”. Recent research showed that the virus induces long-term changes in how stem cells develop, causing some that were slated to form bone cells to turn into fat cells instead. Researchers are quick to point out that you shouldn’t avoid fat people for fear of infection because the infectious phase only lasts a few weeks, and would have ended long before obesity set in. Continue Reading »

Dangerous Ideas

Daniel Horowitz just forwarded me an interesting article in which Steve Pinker is debating and defending the merits of exploring dangerous ideas even though they may threaten our core values and deeply offend our sensibilities. What struck me most interesting (and laudable) was Pinker’s willingness to play devil’s advocate to his own argument and suggest that maybe exploring dangerous ideas is too dangerous an idea itself and thus should not be adopted as a practice:

But don’t the demands of rationality always compel us to seek the complete truth? Not necessarily. Rational agents often choose to be ignorant. They may decide not to be in a position where they can receive a threat or be exposed to a sensitive secret. They may choose to avoid being asked an incriminating question, where one answer is damaging, another is dishonest and a failure to answer is grounds for the questioner to assume the worst (hence the Fifth Amendment protection against being forced to testify against oneself). Scientists test drugs in double-blind studies in which they keep themselves from knowing who got the drug and who got the placebo, and they referee manuscripts anonymously for the same reason. Many people rationally choose not to know the gender of their unborn child, or whether they carry a gene for Huntington’s disease, or whether their nominal father is genetically related to them. Perhaps a similar logic would call for keeping socially harmful information out of the public sphere.

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Management 2.0

There is a movement afoot in the business world that parallels the growing maturity of the internet and Web 2.0. Let’s call it Management 2.0. Google is a famous example at the vanguard, notable not so much for its management innovation per se — many companies are just as innovative when it comes to management — but rather for its rapid growth, global mindshare and financial success. A Harvard Business Review issue in the winter of 2006 claimed that management innovation — not technological innovation — is now the key driver of economic value worldwide. To be sure, management innovation is enabled by new technologies, especially those involving the internet and communication. Following are some of the concepts of Management 2.0, you are encouraged to complete and refine this list. Continue Reading »

It is well-understood that the primary relationship between agents in an evolutionary system is that of competition for resources: food, mates, territory, control, etc. It is also recognized that agents not only compete but also cooperate with one another, sometimes simultaneously, for instance hunting in packs (cooperation) while also fighting for alpha status within the pack (competition). If we look at inter-agent behaviors as existing on a continuum of pure competition on one end and pure cooperation* on the other, it is clear that there is broad range both within species and between agents of different species. Originally, cooperative behavior was explained away as an exception to the general competitive landscape and happened only when two agents shared enough genetic code (such as between parent and child) that cooperation could be seen as a form of genetic selfishness. While this true in a narrow sense, it misses the larger point which is that cooperation between any two or more agents can confer advantages to all regardless of genetic distance. Consider symbiotic species such as crocodiles and the birds that clean their teeth and get a tasty meal in return, without being eaten themselves. Continue Reading »

Over the years evolutionary theory has itself evolved to encompass new and more disciplines: social Darwinism, genetic algorithms, co-evolution of biology and culture, evolutionary psychology, economics, psychoanalysis, and more. Attempts to formalize evolution typically have focused on several elements or preconditions for natural selection:

  1. a POPULATION of individual agents
  2. a REPRODUCTION mechanism
  3. a MUTATION mechanism that yields differential fitness of agents
  4. a SELECTION mechanism which favors highly fit agents over others for reproduction

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Dangerous Media

With the massacre at Virginia Tech weighing on everyone’s mind, we must look at the causal role that society, especially mass media (including the internet) plays in such tragedies. Much is discussed about the personal influences of mass-murderers, what “lead” them to do horrific deeds. Was it their parents who abused them, the fellow students who harassed them, the lover who scorned them, or some chemical/psychological imbalance that caused them to go off the deep end? What about the easy access to weapons? Clearly all of these factors and more can, and do contribute. But the secret sauce in such recipes for disaster is mass media. Continue Reading »

The New Philanthropy

What I mean by “the New Philanthropy” is the cultural change afoot that is leading more and more of us to believe and act on the belief that we can make a big impact, in our lifetime, with or without large amounts of capital. The New Philanthropy has three classes of people.

Independently Wealthy

John Wood is a model example of someone who had accumulated massive resources and lived a full and busy life, but had some experiences that shifted his perspective to the point where he could no longer continue on his previous path. In the old days, independently wealthy philanthropists like Rockefeller saw their role as to “make as much money as possible, and then use it wisely to improve the lot of mankind.” John Wood and his ilk believe “what kind of man am I if I don’t go face this challenge directly”, and to their peers who say they are crazy or having a midlife crisis they respond “wouldn’t it be a crisis to not follow my heart… at age 35, I’m too young to not do that”.  Continue Reading »

…but weak, indecisive and utterly incapable of true world leadership
read the article | digg the article

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For me, the following metaphor really helps to envision the relationship between levels and their interactions. Imagine a clear rectangular container viewed from the side. Inside the container are various substances with various degrees of attraction to and repulsion from one another, such as sand, water, vegetable oil, alcohol, pebbles, ice, motor oil, etc. Continue Reading »

Mechanisms of Agency

The following is a non-exhaustive catalog. Note that these mechanisms are in fact emergent properties of the system under study, a fact which has some fairly profound consequences when considering the lowest known levels in physical systems. Read Ervin Laszlo’s chapter, Aspects of Information, in Evolution of Information Processing Systems (EIPS) for more theoretical background.

Stasis

The most trivial form of stability we can think of is an agent existing in the same place over time without change. This may only make sense as you read on, so don’t get caught up here.

Movement

Keeping time in the equation but allowing physical location to vary, we see that agents can move and continue to exist and be recognized as the “same”. This is obvious in the physical world we live in, but consider what is going on with gliders in the Game of Life. The analogy is more than loose since cellular automata are network topologies which mirror physical space in one or two dimensions. Contrast this to other network topologies, such as the brain, which has many more than two dimensions in its state space.

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Cultural Agency

Talking about culture from a complex systems standpoint requires a bit of inductive leap of faith as follows. If you buy the argument that agents emerge from agents (and interactions thereof) at lower levels, then it is clear that there is some level of agency above individual humans.* What we call this level varies according to who is telling the story and what the thrust of their thesis is: population, culture, society, memetics, economy, zeitgeist, etc. The reality is that all of these levels (and more) co-exist, and we are talking about interlocking systems at varying “partial levels” with dynamic, and only loosely constrained, information flow. Nonetheless, there are common elements and properties that we can discuss that are at the very least distinct from the realm of an isolated individual human being.

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Agency

To understand the concept of agency and emergence thereof, it helps to think about very pure systems that exhibit agency emergence. One such system is Conway’s Game of Life, a kind of cellular automata system which exhibits some uncanny life-like behaviors. You should read the synopsis of Life as well as watch various simulations of it unfold so you get an understanding and an intuition about what’s happening. A remarkable aspect of Life that the rules that govern everything that happens in the system are extremely simple and only apply to a local neighborhood on a grid. What emerges as a run of Life unfolds could hardly be called simple though.
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Evolution & Emergence

Evolution and emergence are not the same thing. Evolution is the process of change within a particular level. Emergence is the creation of a new level of organization through the coming into existence of one or more self-sustaining systems, or agents. These agents often co-exist in populations of other agents which are more or less similar to one another, for instance a species, a tribe, or an ecology of organisms from a variety of species.
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Emergent Causality

For whatever reason, perhaps a pervasive simplicity bias,* we as humans like to think of causality in very basic terms: each event has one and only one cause. Multi-causal explanations seem unsatisfying. We like to know who (or what) to blame or credit. Shared responsibility seems somehow not as real. In cognitive psychology experiments it is well-documented how a crowd of people will stand by watching someone else in distress without anyone offering to help. Yet any one of those same witnesses would invariably take action if nobody else were around. The literature explains this as a sort of “tragedy of the commons” in personal responsibility, i.e. each individual in a crowd of 20 is only 1/20th responsible. Furthermore, everyone assumes that somehow the other 19/20ths of the responsibility will take care of it, if they haven’t already.

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Try This Experiment

For one full day, whenever you are in physical proximity to another person, be they friend or stranger, look them in the eyes, hold their gaze and smile.

Parts of the Elephant

There is a story about several wise men fumbling around in the dark trying to understand the nature of an elephant by each feeling different parts of the body (leg, trunk, etc). This strikes me as analogous to an approach to understanding the mind that tries to isolate mental functions by mapping them to physical regions of the brain.

Sure, we’ve known for years that regions of the brain are correlated to mental functions like language, vision, controlling distinct parts of the body, et al. And we observe that gross damage to these areas correlates to loss of function. But the observations show many exceptions and edge cases, such as functional compensation during brain damage. An illuminating aspect of brain damage is the continuous (as opposed to discrete) loss of function, which contrasts sharply with damage to human-engineered systems like cars and computers. With technology, generally speaking if a physical region gets damaged, the function it was serving is totally gone. With biological systems, and especially the brain, function degrades “gracefully”, which is to say, you may be dsylxeic or a pour speeler, but y0u still by g3t qui find 99% of the time.

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This is a repost from my MySpace blog, but it really belongs here.

Why Political Parties Exist, Why they are Bad, and How to Eliminate Them

Voting blocs are an emergent property of representative democracies wherein each new voting issue carries with it an automatic right for each representative to vote. In other words, when votes are treated like a continually renewable resource, there becomes incentive for each representative to give away votes on issues they care less about in exchange from something of greater value. When that thing of greater value is money we call it corruption. When the thing of greater value is a promise of future support from an outside agency, we call it lobbying. And when groups of representatives agree on an ongoing basis to trade away votes in exchange for membership, we call it a party. Continue Reading »

Networks

One useful model of how information flows between elements of a level is the mathematical abstraction of a graph, more plainly known as a network. The internet is our current exemplar, but most levels of organization are amenable to network modelling of information flow: social networks, biochemical pathways, molecular latices (aka crystals), etc. The basic components of a network are nodes (i.e. the elements/agents of the level of choice in the previous post) and links from one node to another. The links in our abstract model define which nodes can pass messages to (aka share information with) which other nodes. If we wish to have a complete understanding of information flow using network modeling, there has to be a link between every pair of nodes/agents that might interact in some way.* Continue Reading »

Levels of Organization

One of the paradigms in complex adaptive systems thinking that has great explanatory power is the idea that there are distinct systems organized hierarchically in various levels of complexity. So, for instance, you can look at atoms as being a system at one level of organization, on top of which sits the next level of atomically bonded compounds (aka molecules), on top of which sits the next level of molecular reactions (e.g. chains of enzyme reactions), and so on. It’s well-understood that within a given level, the individual elements (i.e. atoms at the atomic level, molecules at the molecular level, etc.) interact with one another and can be thought of as passing messages or sharing information. At the atomic level the interactions (mainly) come in the form of atomic bonds: two hydrogen atoms bind to an oxygen atom in a particular configuration in a standard and repeatable way. Incidentally — from the standpoint of the atom — we come to recognize this pattern and classify such a configuration as a water molecule. Incidentally — from the standpoint of the molecule — we recognize that water molecules can configure in several ways to form what we call ice, water, and steam/gas. It’s hard for us to think of atoms and molecules as message passing or information sharing, but at higher levels of complexity (e.g. the brain, humans with language, even enzyme chains) we instinctively recognize that information is created, destroyed, blocked, and used in many different ways. Importantly, information within a given level can be passed in chains from one element to another, and from there form feedback loops in which the end of the chain connects back to the beginning of the chain. Continue Reading »

This Sentence is False

Combining the notions from the last two posts — we understand only through models, and our models are mainly metaphorical — we can shed light on some of the most profound and durable philosophical and scientific debates. One such debate, that of free will versus determinism, brings with it a host of other paradoxes, including personal identity, intentionality, and the existence of a God/god/gods. Without going into the details of these conundrums, it is safe to say that our models/metaphors of such sticky concepts as “free will” are fundamentally flawed. They are shortcuts that serve useful purposes when speaking plainly about everyday occurrences, but which belie a much subtler and more complex reality when pressed upon. The idea that there even exists something real called a “will” not only begs the question of whose will it is (personal identity), but also should make us question whether it is a useful and accurate concept to describe anything in the world. I would claim that long-standing paradoxes exist because we reify a concept by creating a phrase to describe something we care about (i.e. we create a new metaphor/model) and then we either never question the existence of the thing being described or we forget that our phrase is indeed a model/metaphor which should not be confused with the thing itself.

Thought as Metaphor

Lakoff and Johnson make an incredibly convincing argument that the majority of human “understanding”, including most of conscious analytical thought, is achieved by a highly innate and irrevocably ingrained mechanism of metaphor. We understand one thing by treating it as if it were another thing that we understand better. We then use the calculus (i.e. facts, laws, conventional wisdom, etc.) from the well-understood realm to gain an analogous understanding of the new realm. An example of such metaphorical thinking can be seen in the Time as Money metaphor. In this metaphor, time can be spent, borrowed, wasted; and we can run out of time, gain more time, and save time. Not only do we use the terminology of monetary accounting, but we use their processes in a very real sense. To appreciate this, simply note the imagery that comes to mind as you read the Time as Money terminology above. It is important to note that we do not just employ a single metaphor for each area of understanding. Rather, we each individually employ a whole host of different metaphors for the same realm, some of which are complementary, some contradictory and some completely orthogonal. For instance, we often employ the Time as Arrow, Time as Wheel, and Time as an Infinite Line metaphors, to name only a few. Continue Reading »

As much as I strive to get at the “truth” in whatever I do, I hate the word. I prefer to acknowledge that everything we know about the universe is based on the models (aka theories) which are imperfect. As we study more about a system, we refine our models, we take models from other systems and try to apply them to the new realm, sometimes with surprising illumination. I’d rather talk about the predictive power of models than talk about truth. Continue Reading »

If you truly believe in God or if you are a staunch Atheist, you will not get anything out of reading further than this sentence. Continue Reading »

Can we cure cancer?

In my previous post I paraphrased my understanding of why the cancer workshop was called as the premise: “cancer is an evolutionary process; the cure for cancer is within reach, and is mostly an engineering problem now that we have the right model; and what can we do collectively to work towards and achieve the goal of a cure”. Here’s the current scorecard in my mind: Continue Reading »

Prelude

The last two days I attended a conference that I was attracted to because the organizers and I have been conversing lately on a subject of interest, namely the idea that “cancer is an evolutionary process; the cure for cancer is within reach, and is mostly an engineering problem now that we have the right model; and what can we do collectively to work towards and achieve the goal of a cure”. Based on my previous thinking on and study of complex adaptive systems plus a treatise that the organizer wrote, I already believed that it was obviously true that “cancer is an evolutionary process”, I was predisposed to believe the premise “the cure for cancer is within reach”, I was open to the question of whether it is “mostly an engineering problem”, and was hopeful about the possibility of working collectively with others on that problem. What I came out with was quite a bit more than I bargained for, not the least of which was a growing awareness of a diverse community of thinkers whose eyes are opening to some fundamental shifts in how we think of “reality” (the universe, the world, humanity, evolution, biology, chemistry, physics, etc).

As both a practical and self-indulgent matter, I am launching a this blog that is essentially my personal journey to understand better. I intuitively know that there will be a limit to how much understanding I can get unless I connect with people through a continuous dialog that challenges assumptions at every turn. If interested, I invite you join me, with one caveat: you must be willing challenge everything, nothing is sacrosanct, not God, Truth, Self, or even Existence. I heard a quote this week that was from one scientist to another that sums up my feeling on the matter: “That statement is so wrong, not even its opposite is true”.

As a philanthropic and self-indulgent matter, I will also try my best to connect with others who are interested in studying and “curing” “cancer”, and are willing to challenge their assumptions, starting with the group that I met with the last two days, and helping grow that community to become self-sustaining. You will be able to learn more about that shortly on the this blog, which will lead you to a different forum.

Warning for the faint of heart and blissfully ignorant, the rabbit hole runs deep…